Public Servant

Ralph Martini does whatever it takes for his community’s wastewater treatment system — even door-to-door selling when needed
Public Servant
Ralph Martini checks equipment in the headworks building at the Heyburn treatment plant. The Salsnes filter from Blue Water Technologies, located in the building, is the first defense against solids entering the plant.

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When Heyburn, Idaho, needed a large sewer rate increase,Ralph Martini went door-to-door in the city of 2,900 people to explain why. In the end, the citizens accepted the reasons and approved a treatment plant upgrade plan that nearly doubled their bills.

“I’m a public servant,” says Martini, who has been with the city’s wastewater treatment plant since 1993. He also sees himself as a servant of the environment. “The public and the city have been very, very supportive of what we do here, including training and conferences, and learning new ways of doing things,” he reports.

He needs that support in a small city. As public works director, he has a staff of just three people for wastewater and drinking water. “Any of us could be called in to mow lawn, read a meter, plow snow, change a stop sign,” he says. “There aren’t enough hours in the day. We all pitch in and do what needs to be done.”

There are three full-time operators at the wastewater treatment plant, which runs unmanned overnight: Andy Schaner (wastewater operator 1), Eric Christensen (wastewater operator 3) and Brenton Holt (operator in training).

Value of water

Water is a valuable commodity in the region. The leading local industries are agriculture and several fish farms that help make Idaho the nation’s leader in production of trout. Those industries need a lot of water from the lakes and groundwater of the high mountain desert of south-central Idaho.

Martini gets plenty of opportunity to educate people about the importance of those water resources. “We all know each other,” he says. “I meet people on the streets and they ask me questions. They have my phone number and can call me 24/7, and they do.”

Such was the case while planning a 2008 upgrade to the city’s activated sludge treatment plant (now 1.1 mgd) that discharges to the Snake River. By law, bonding for the $6 million project, designed to meet limits, required a public vote. “I, the other plant workers, and city council members went door-to-door explaining it,” Martini says.

The utility charges most users a flat monthly fee that covers anything up to 7,500 gallons a month. In 1993, the monthly fee increased from $10 to almost $16 to fund improvements at the plant. In 1997, residents approved another hike to $25. The 2008 upgrade required a jump to $42.85.

“If you don’t keep people in the dark, you get better response than if you try to shove it down their throats,” says Martini. That attitude helped garner “yes” votes from 75 to 80 percent of residents in the recent rate increase referendums.

Active in the field

Martini says the city has been very supportive of his involvement in various associations that help him keep current with the industry, regulations, and new treatment strategies — even though those activities take him away from work. He has been an area director for the Southeast Idaho Operators section of the Pacific Northwest Clean Water Association for eight years and was named one of the group’s Wastewater Operators of the Year in 2010.

PNCWA ensures that operator training meets the state’s continuing education requirements. “I’m responsible for making sure all the systems in my area are aware of our training, meetings and goals,” Martini says. “We’re all small operators, and we all look out for each other. The big cities lend us people and equipment, and we do the same for each other.”

Martini has also served as president and vice president of a drinking water group he helped form, the Idaho Chapter of the American Backflow Prevention Association. He also attends meetings of the Idaho chapter of the National Rural Water Association.

His employers haven’t even balked at him operating his own company, MC Environmental, which he formed with Christensen. “We are contract operators for small wastewater plants in the area,” he says.

The venture helps him learn and keep up with industry changes, and provides a valuable resource for the plants he serves. Idaho requires each system to have a responsible operator and a backup operator — difficult for small systems like those at campgrounds and trailer parks.

“That’s what we provide,” says Martini. “We are the liaisons to the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and EPA. We do the water testing and monitoring that is required, write the annual reports, and do troubleshooting and repairs.”

MC Environmental customers include two small cities with no licensed operators on staff, five trailer courts, and a large truck stop. “They have limited finances,” he says, “so the biggest thing is keeping them up to date with the regulations.”

For instance, he and Christensen are working with customers with lagoon systems to make sure they meet a new requirement that all lagoons in Idaho be safety-tested by 2012. “They have to be thinking about hiring an engineer, because there aren’t many firms offering the service,” Martini says.

Started in childhood

Martini came by his interest in water early in life. His mother was an environmental specialist at an Ore-Ida plant near Heyburn, so he often went to work with her in the lab on the weekend as she did testing for the plant’s wastewater facility. Those childhood experiences gave him some awareness of the environmental field, but it wasn’t until later that he came to appreciate it.

After graduating from high school in 1978, he held various jobs around the community until he was hired at the drinking water treatment plant across the river in Burley in 1989. For that job, he also had to be familiar with the wastewater plant as part of his on-call duties. Reading trade journals in the break room gave him an idea.

After two years in Burley, he saw a potential niche in the market. Recycling was gaining popularity, but there wasn’t much of it going on around Burley and Heyburn. So he left the city to start his own recycling company, with Burley as a main customer. After a year, he got the chance to manage a recycling center, which he did for three years.

Then came an opportunity to work for the Heyburn wastewater plant. It was a good-paying city job with benefits, so he applied and was hired as operator in training in February 1993. He earned the necessary licenses and certifications through education programs from the various industry groups and was ready to step up when the wastewater plant manager left four years later.

Time to reclaim?

Martini credits the continuing education programs, other operators in the area, DEQ staff, and trade journals with the growth of a career that has pretty much enveloped his life. “At times I wonder why I’m doing this, but it’s rewarding and I get a lot of satisfaction out of it,” he says.

“A lot of people take wastewater for granted. But in my mind, it’s just like recycling. We take clean groundwater, it goes through some beneficial use, we treat it, and we discharge clean water.”

Looking ahead, Martini would love to be able to reuse Heyburn’s wastewater. “We use a lot of surface water around here for irrigation, but we’re a small town so we don’t have the resources to make Class A water for reuse,” he says.

Not yet, anyway, but it’s another niche he would like to fill someday. That will depend on economic growth in the community, and it looks as if some projects may be panning out. “If we have to do another upgrade, I’m sure we’ll be able to start reclaiming some of that water,” he says. “It may not happen in my tenure here, but we’re laying the groundwork for it.”

And that may mean more door-to-door selling.


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