Biology or chemistry?

I also struggled with the question of "Which Side of the Fence?" (WSO November/December 2012). I began my career change into this challenging field just over two years ago.

I had some preconceived notions about wastewater that prevented me from exploring the field. Questioning "which side" promises more career opportunities, a better fit personally, and possibly longevity. After educating myself as much as I could through coursework and talking with people working in the field, I still found myself at a loss.

The answer came from Warren Dancer, an instructor in the water technologies program I had enrolled in at Gateway Community College in Phoenix. When faced with this same choice, he responded, "Well, that's an easy question. Think back to junior high, high school or any classroom study. Which subject interested you, or which did you excel? Chemistry or biology?

"If it's chemistry then you want to pursue water treatment. If it's biology, then wastewater treatment. Water treatment is all about changing and manipulating the chemistry of the water. Wastewater treatment is about interactions between microbiology and treatment processes. Once you find something you like, the rest is easy."

His profound yet simple answer helped me with my decision, and I know it will help others decide which track in the exciting field of water technologies to go down. Thanks to my instructor, mentor and colleague.

David Walby

Collections Operator

Department of Public Works

Surprise, Ariz.

Experienced on both sides

In response to your recent "On Tap" editorial, I thought I would share my experiences. I started in wastewater treatment, first municipal and then as a contractor operator to municipal plants. This phase of my career started in 1985 and ran through 2001.

I then moved to a contract-operated municipal drinking water treatment plant and have been doing that work for 11 years now. About one year ago, I left the private contract operations firm and have worked for a municipality since. Here are my responses to the questions you posed.

I don't think either industry is more mentally stimulating or challenging. Both are very similar. Wastewater is more challenging due to the complex biological processes, the challenges of biosolids management, the unknowns of the raw influent contaminants, and the time lags between process changes and the results of those changes.

Potable water is simpler to operate: Physical and chemical processes respond immediately to chemical adjustments, and results are achieved in hours, not days. But the aspect of protecting public health adds a level of vigilance that is not as prominent in the wastewater profession. And the tools of the trade are interchangeable: process equipment, SCADA systems, laboratory analyses and more.

Water treatment is more rewarding for me, partially because of the public health implications. Another aspect is the opportunity to interact with the public and educate them on water quality, and the hard work we do every day that they do not often see. Wastewater has a significant "icky factor" that keeps visitors away.

I think the public values and understands the potable water side more than the wastewater side of the industry. They certainly will call and complain about the slightest unusual taste, or low pressure, or unexpected color in their water. Wastewater is usually less noticeable, unless there is a spill, or odors from a treatment plant. I am looking forward to your summary of compiled responses.

Kevin Batridge

Assistant Water Treatment Plant Manager

City of Lake Oswego, Ore.

Both sides are truly professional

I have worked on both sides in the water and wastewater treatment field. I have found both sides to be rewarding to work in and the operators in both to be very professional and with very demanding regulatory compliance concerns to meet. Both are highly concerned with public health.

The quality of the wastewater discharge is of great concern to the next potable water treatment plant downstream. Often, discharges of the upstream wastewater plants can affect the downstream users and eventually work their way to and through the next wastewater plant also. A source water may dilute the upstream discharges, but ultimately the pollutants are still there and need to be removed to continue to protect public health.

Both the water and wastewater sides are concerned with plant aesthetic values, as most people associate the water quality leaving the plant with the plant housekeeping. Public observation is that if the plant is filthy, then the water quality leaving the facility is not good, either.

Also, both are concerned with art. I do believe art may play a larger role in wastewater treatment. Art is very important in potable water treatment, as well. What works in one facility just upstream may not work at the next site downstream. Most notably, the smells at the wastewater facility are the smells of cash. As in the old adage, "One man's trash is truly another's treasure" at a wastewater facility.

Treatment plant operators for both sides are truly the last bastion of public health protection. When water and wastewater plant operators are doing their jobs correctly, they are invisible. However, we need to embark on an educational campaign to demonstrate to our customers the fantastic job our staffs do on behalf of all our ratepayers.

Dan Houston

Supervising Plant Operator

Sacramento River Water Treatment Plant

Sacramento, Calif.

Reclamation is the most rewarding

I am superintendent for a plant that takes raw wastewater to drinking quality for replenishment of our aquifer. I have 28 years of experience, mostly in the wastewater side, but this plant gives me quite a bit of insight on the surface water side, since it is generally a wastewater plant followed by a water plant.

We have conventional wastewater plants that I have worked at, and we have surface water plants that supplement the groundwater supply.

Which side is more mentally challenging and stimulating? I find the wastewater side more challenging. Depending on living organisms to treat wastewater is significantly more difficult than the chemical/physical methods for drinking water. Operational sweet spots and the cause of problems are more difficult to determine. It used to seem weird that we need to "understand the bugs," but now, I usually do.

The surface water plants we have in this city operate seasonally, only during the irrigation season. Those of us who manage a wastewater plant would love to have the opportunity to stop treatment in order to completely service and overhaul all equipment. We have come up with some pretty innovative approaches to maintaining the facilities without process interruption.

Generally, we work with what we receive, high flow to no flow. We expect to handle either condition equally well. The water plants set a flow rate they feel comfortable with.

Which side feels more intrinsically rewarding? I have met many a water guy or gal who will not even consider working in the wastewater environment. Wastewater people however, generally do not have any problem transitioning to the water side. Therefore, I consider wastewater people the rarer breed.

On the wastewater side, I have seen somewhere that, "Every day is Earth Day" (and I mean every day, night and mid-shift, 24/7/365).

Does the public seem to understand and value one side more than the other? Really, do you have to ask? I have guided countless tours of this and conventional wastewater plants. I have never encountered a person who didn't seem to hold even a little regard for the those who provide clean water to their house. However, one of the comments I most often hear during a tour is, "I have never even wondered what happened to the water once it goes down the drain."

I do need to add that having the opportunity to turn wastewater back to potable is synergistically more rewarding, challenging and stimulating than either side alone. Judging by the responses of visitors to the plant, most leave here with infinitely greater understanding that adequate water supplies for the future of this community and environmental stewardship go hand in hand.

Vick Pedregon

Plant Superintendent

Fred Hervey Water Reclamation Plant

El Paso, Texas


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