Home Grown

Family and community help David Ricker succeed in his role as chief operator at the water treatment plant in Greeneville, Tenn.
Home Grown
Panorama of the 30-million-gallon pre-settling reservoir with membrane liner.

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David Ricker sees water treatment as more than a job — it’s who he is and what he does. Ricker, a 36-year team member and now chief operator at the Greeneville (Tenn.) Water Plant, has fashioned an award-winning career from ensuring high-quality water for his community of 15,000, nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.

It’s not hard to see why. Ricker’s father worked for the Greeneville Sewer Commission for 30 years and served as chief wastewater treatment plant operator. Ricker himself went to work for the commission right after he graduated from Greeneville High School. As luck would have it, a worker was retiring from the water plant, so Ricker got in, and never looked back. He soon decided that a water career was exactly what he wanted.

“I started as a laborer, but the Greeneville Water Commission is real good about sending folks to school to get their licenses,” he explains in his southern accent. “So I worked around the plant for about a year and then took my first certification test and passed it. After I’d put in five years, I was able to take my Grade 4 license exam and then became a Grade 4 operator. I also have a Distribution 2 operator’s license, which means I can work with tanks and lines and things like that.”

Recognized as an asset

As chief operator at the 16 mgd water treatment plant, Ricker, 54, has done well. Last July, the AWWA Kentucky/Tennessee Section named him the recipient of its 2012 Operator Meritorious Service Award at the annual Water Professionals Conference in Memphis. The awards recognize “water operators who have demonstrated exceptional performance in exceeding federal drinking water standards, and initiative to excel at the business of producing safe water for customers.”

The award is given each year to two operators, one in each state. There are about 1,500 licensed water operators in Tennessee. Winners are chosen based on recommendations that demonstrate their proficiency in management, plant performance and maintenance, knowledge of treatment plant operations and regulations, innovation, and Section participation.

“We’re so proud of David for this accomplishment,” says Laura White, Greeneville Water Superintendent. “He is an asset to the citizens of Greeneville and Greene County. This award is a token of appreciation for his many years of hard work and the sacrifices he has made to ensure that the customers of the Greeneville Water Commission have a safe, reliable source of drinking water. He truly deserves this award and so much more.”

White, who’s been superintendent for three years, cites Ricker’s extensive knowledge of the plant and his willingness to try new approaches and technologies to improve operations, such as reducing disinfectant byproducts. She also says Ricker is great when it comes to training his operators and serving as a leader.

“David has the respect of the six operators who work for him,” White says. “He has forgotten more about the plant and water operations than I’ll ever know. I wish I could clone him.”

Lance Miller, assistant chief operator, who has worked for Ricker for 15 years, couldn’t agree more. He calls Ricker “honest and straightforward” and adds, “You couldn’t find anyone better to work for than David.”

New day, new challenges

Ricker’s daily duties include directing Miller and the five other Grade 4 operators on his team: Joseph Bowman, Darrin Woolsey, James Jeffers, David Haubrich, and Billy Britton. They oversee the raw-water intake, make decisions about water quality, and buy chemicals, maintenance products and tools to keep the plant running smoothly. Their activities run the gamut from maintaining water tanks and mixed-media filters (anthracite coal and sand), fixing vertical-turbine pumps (Weir Minerals and Layne/Verti-Line), painting, mowing lawns, repairing valves, whatever it takes to keep water flowing.

Ricker and his crew also do their own maintenance at the plant and River Pump Station, which sits on the 115-mile-long Nolichucky River, from which the plant draws its water. It’s a major stream that drains the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee.

The Greeneville plant serves the corporate limits of Greeneville, Chuckey, Cross Anchor, Glen Hills and Old Knoxville Highway Water, along with the Town of Mosheim Water System. The conventional filtration treatment plant was a 2010 Best Tasting Water competition winner for its AWWA section.

“I work mostly days — 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. — but I’m on call 24/7,” Ricker says. “The last time I was called in, we had lost communication between our SCADA system and some of our filters, so we had to address that. Another time it was when our post-chlorinator quit for a little while. You just never know what’ll break down. You try to do preventive maintenance, but you can only do so much; things happen.”

Ricker doesn’t mind dealing with the occasional disruption. He says the Greeneville Water Commission is “excellent to work for” and sees water as a good career choice. “It’s never dull or boring,” he says. “There are different things to deal with every day, not like going into a factory and doing the same thing over and over. There’s also a lot of in and out, so you’re not trapped in one building. I go out and check the plant, then drive over to River Pump Station, which is about two miles away.”

Effective process

On a typical day, Ricker gets a briefing from the night shift operator. Then he lays out what maintenance the team will be doing. After that, he runs tests first thing in the morning, checks the filter beds and underdrains (Leopold), and handles a wide assortment of operational tasks.

Raw water pumped into the plant is hit with a coagulant to settle the solids and treated with carbon for taste and odor. The Nolichucky River contains substantial amounts of suspended sandy soil particles and typically gets an influx of debris, including that from neighboring North Carolina. So filtering — and maintaining filters — is important. The filtered water goes through mixing basins and on to settling basins.

From there, the water is filtered, chlorine is added, and it moves to clear wells where the chlorine does its work of disinfection. Once fluoride is added, the water is pumped to the distribution system. Besides supplying Greeneville, the commission sells roughly half of the water to five utilities in the Greene County area. Essentially, it serves all of Greene County and its 65,000 residents.

Greene County, in northeast Tennessee, covers 624 square miles. Greeneville is the county seat and the state’s second-oldest incorporated community, after Jonesborough.

Quality commitment

While Ricker and his team haven’t had flooding or other crises to contend with, they’re well prepared. They maintain a raw-water reservoir that resembles a miniature man-made lake and functions as a pre-settling pond, holding 30 million gallons. Because the plant pumps about 8.5 mgd, the pond provides about a three-day supply. Therefore, if there were flooding or a chemical spill up-river and the pump station were to shut down, raw water would still be available for treatment.

“Our plant has done well in terms of water quality,” Ricker says. “In fact, we haven’t had any violations since I’ve been here. We’ve always met our requirements for turbidity, chlorine, disinfectant byproducts and other parameters. We take serving the community very seriously.”

That’s understandable, considering Ricker’s roots in Greeneville run pretty deep. Besides his father’s long career with the Sewer Commission, Ricker’s mother still lives in Greeneville. He’s married and has two children — a son who’s a Greeneville police officer and a daughter who is chief deputy clerk for the county.

Looking to grow

Greeneville is the city where President Andrew Johnson began his political career, and he and his family lived there for most of his adult life. The community’s strong abolitionist views influenced Johnson’s outlook.

Like many small towns, Greeneville has seen industries leave in recent years, including a Magnavox facility and Pet Milk plant. That’s a big reason the Greeneville Water Plant is running at about half of its design capacity.

Ricker was confident that would change with the arrival of a new plant for U.S. Nitrogen (a subsidiary of Cleveland-based Austin Powder), which makes industrial explosives. It was scheduled to come online in early 2013.

In 2010, the Greene County Commission voted to rezone property to clear the way for a liquid ammonium nitrate production plant that will create as many as 80 full-time jobs and bring more than $110 million of new capital investment to the area.

“At that point, we’ll be up to about 10 mgd, which will be great,” Ricker says. “It’ll give us more to do, and that’s fine with me. The more things going on, the better I like it.”


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