Out and About

Leslie Gryder’s role as a lab chemist in Lynchburg includes reaching out into the community to help troubleshoot customers’ issues and respond to emergencies.
Out and About
The Lynchburg team includes, from left, Chad Cline, water plant operator trainee; Timothy Mitchell, director of water resources; Gryder, chemist; Richard Eden, water plant superintendent; and Amanda Brown, water plant shift supervisor.

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If you picture a water treatment lab chemist as someone spending all day indoors hunched over vials and test tubes, microscopes and spectrophotometers, you don’t know Leslie Gryder.

As lab chemist for the Lynchburg (Va.) Department of Water Resources, Gryder is just as likely to be found checking source water quality at the reservoir 22 miles from the city, meeting a customer at home to discuss a water-quality issue, or out on the distribution system pulling samples for bacteriological testing to check the potential health effects of a water main break.

It’s the variety of tasks and the changes of scenery that keep Gryder excited about going to work after 14 years in her role — that and the satisfaction of working with a team of bright people equally dedicated to delivering quality water to the city’s 76,000 residents.

For her efforts, Gryder earned the U.S. EPA’s 2012 Mid-Atlantic Professional Operator Excellence award in the Large System Category. “Leslie is extremely dedicated and conscientious,” observes Timothy Mitchell, P.E., director of water resources. “She cares deeply about water quality and the reputation of our department. She works very well with our customers and other stakeholders, internal and external. She’s an essential part of the fantastic team we have in the Water Treatment Division.”

Quality source

Lynchburg, known as the Hill City, draws its water from the Pedlar Reservoir, a billion-gallon impoundment of the Pedlar River in the George Washington National Forest. The water is naturally soft, and turbidity is consistent, largely unaffected by rainfalls. The city also can draw from the James River as a secondary source in the event of breaks in the pipeline from the reservoir or in case of drought. “Over the long run, 95 percent of the time the reservoir is the primary source,” Gryder says.

Lynchburg operates two conventional water treatment plants: the College Hill Filtration Plant and the Abert Filtration Plant, with a combined capacity of 26 mgd and average combined flow of 10 mgd.

Gryder grew up in New York State and worked in a commercial laboratory while earning an associate degree in medical laboratory technology from the State University of New York. She then moved to Raleigh, N.C., worked full time in a laboratory and studied part time to earn a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from North Carolina State University.

Soon afterward, she married and moved with her husband to Lynchburg, where “I looked for a job to make use of my newly attained degree,” Gryder says. The search led her to the city and the water department. “I was like most people who never really gave a second thought to where my water came from and what was involved in making it drinkable,” she recalls. “The first time I came here and got a tour of a water treatment plant, I found it fascinating. I still like the work very much.”

Gryder worked for the water department lab for two years, along the way earning her Class I water plant operator license. She left for eight years to stay home with her children, then returned to the job in 2001.

Varied duties

Like most of the 18 water treatment team members, Gryder wears different hats. “We’re kind of a midsize utility, so we’re not big enough to have a lot of staff resources,” Mitchell says. “But we’re too big to not have any, so we have people who have multiple skills and multiple responsibilities.”

Gryder maintains a Virginia Department of Health certified lab for bacteriological analysis. “We draw samples to do our own testing for coliform bacteria,” she says. “I deal with the new regulations that come out and try to anticipate what needs to be done day to day and month to month. I calibrate instrumentation, prepare reports to the Department of Health and for our own use, and help troubleshoot when we have issues with the water. We do some testing up at the reservoir, mainly in summertime.”

The lab work includes use of a zeta potential electrophoresis instrument (Zeta-Meter) to determine the optimum alum dose for treatment.

Dealing with customers is an important part of the job, and Gryder much prefers to meet them in person. Many complaints concern discolored water, often caused by a disruption in the flow from main flushing or a main break. “The folks who work on the construction crews generally deal with those, but we also get occasional complaints about the smell or taste of the water,” Gryder says.

“I end up doing a lot of face-to-face interaction. Somehow on the phone people just don’t really feel like you care. Occasionally I can talk to people over the phone and explain to them what’s going on, but most of the time I end up going out and talking to them.

“The first thing I do is ask what the problem is and how long it has been going on. You’d be surprised how many people say they have an issue with their water, but it’s only in one sink. In that case you know right then and there that it’s an issue with their own plumbing and not with the water.”

Where necessary she can use portable probes (largely Hach instruments) to check parameters such as chlorine, pH, iron and conductivity. She runs bacteriological tests back at the lab, and if she finds something of special concern she can send a sample to an outside lab.

To boil or not?

Gryder’s expertise comes into play in larger events such as distribution line breaks. “Leslie is an integral part of the team that identifies the affected areas, monitors the quality of the water, takes and tests samples, and determines whether we need to issue boil water notices,” Mitchell says.

Main breaks can lead to boil notices because a loss of system pressure (to less than 20 psi) creates the risk of system contamination through backflow, back siphonage or infiltration. “It’s not routine that we issue a boil notice for every main break, but we do analyze the situation, see how much system pressure was lost and determine how big an area was affected,” Mitchell says. “We communicate with the state and local health departments and decide based on the facts whether we need to issue a boil notice or not. It’s a precautionary measure.”

Two relatively recent significant main breaks resulted in boil water notices. One happened the day before Valentine’s Day, and the subsequent boil notices affected the city’s “restaurant row” on one of the busiest weekends. The second affected the city’s largest hospital, other restaurants and a commercial area.  In those cases, says Mitchell, “Leslie was very involved in the whole process. She was integral in assessing the situation, coordinating with the health departments and helping us get the notices lifted as quickly as possible.”

When main breaks happen, Mitchell, Gryder, water plant superintendent Richard Eden and utility line maintenance superintendent Harry Doss lead the response team. The engineering division uses a WaterCAD program (Bentley Systems) and detailed records of past complaints about low water pressure to model the break and identify the area where system pressure has dropped below 20 psi. The GIS team maps the affected area, helping determine which customers should receive boil water notices.

Gryder then draws samples from the area and analyzes them; she repeats the process after the main is repaired and pressure restored. In each case, the bacteriological samples require 24 hours incubation. Water is also tested for chlorine residual. Boil notices themselves can be hand-delivered in the case of small breaks. In other cases, notices are announced on local TV and radio stations and posted on the department’s website.

Community cooperation

Gryder’s influence has reached beyond the city limits to include working with surrounding counties on water-quality issues. She notes that Lynchburg and county water agencies are subject to U.S. EPA Long Term 2 Enhanced Surface Water Treatment Rules aimed at reducing illnesses from Cryptosporidium and other water-borne pathogens.

“When we were first required to comply with those rules, there weren’t many laboratories certified to do the necessary E. coli testing,” she says. “So I got our lab certified by the Virginia State Lab, and then we offered our services to the counties to perform the testing for them, as well.”

It’s that brand of dedication that helped Gryder win the Operator Excellence Award, designed to recognize certified operators who exemplify exceptional work practices on the job and in the community, and who advance the health and safety of potable water for customers. It is presented annually by the Office of Drinking Water and Source Water Protection in EPA Region 3.

For Gryder, the work isn’t about awards. “I really like the people I work with,” she says. “They are smart, and they care about what they do, and that’s a great atmosphere to work in. I especially enjoy the variety the job brings — it never gets boring.”


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