Keep it Flowing

Judy Adams emphasizes teamwork in operating three water plants that keep the Texas city of Brownsville supplied in the face of severe drought.
Keep it Flowing
Judy Adams’ collaborative leadership style wins loyalty among her teammembers.

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Participative. Committed. Driven. Those are words employees and colleagues apply to Judy Adams, water treatment manager at three facilities in Brownsville, Texas.

Since 2005, she has led a team, now numbering 25 operators, that is dedicated to maintaining a “superior” water system for the Brownsville Public Utilities Board (BPUB) — no mean feat under severe drought conditions.

In fact, Adams, a native of Harlingen, Texas, received the 2013 Robert O. Vernon Operator of the Year Award from the American Membrane Technology Association (AMTA) and AWWA. The award, recognizing contributions to water supply improvement by a person working in a desalting or water reuse plant, came as a surprise.

“Judy went to the ceremony in San Antonio not knowing that she had won — she was shocked,” says her supervisor, Genoveva Gomez, director of water and wastewater engineering and operations. “One of our consultants, who helped with the engineering for our desalination plant, gave me information for the award, and we filled it out. I was very glad she won the award. She’s a real pleasure to work with — for everyone.”

Adams’ own reaction: “I was stunned when I learned that I won. I had no inkling I had even been nominated. It’s a great credit to my boss and the operators. They made it possible.” Adams was recognized for her leadership in enabling operators to find ways to meet the new 0.010 mg/L arsenic maximum contaminant level (MCL) in drinking water. She’s a member of AMTA and an officer of the Rio Grande chapter of AWWA.

Skills and passion

Adams balances a busy work-life schedule while heading BPUB Water Plant Number 1 and Water Plant Number 2, both 20 mgd flocculation/sedimentation/filtration facilities. She also heads the 7.5 mgd reverse osmosis (RO) Regional Desalination Plant, which treats brackish groundwater for the Southern Cameron County region. Its capacity is expected to double after a $14 million expansion this year.

BPUB provides water and sewer service to about 47,000 industrial, commercial and residential customers. It’s a big job: Brownsville, home to 178,000, is the 16th largest city in Texas. Located at the state’s southernmost tip, on the northern bank of the Rio Grande, it’s one of the fastest growing urban areas in the nation. And it has been in a drought since 2011.

With more than 27 years in the water business, Adams is up to the task, and then some. “Producing quality water is something I’m passionate about,” she says. She earned a bachelor of science degree in biology from Texas Lutheran College in Seguin and an MBA from the University of Texas. The MBA comes in handy with budgets and projects associated with water. Her main focus is to make sure the plants meet the high standards established by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Adams got hooked on the water profession in her junior year of college, studying medical sciences. She got a 20-hour-a-week job in an environmental lab at the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority and liked it so much that she changed her major to environmental science. After graduating, her first job was with the Harlingen WaterWorks System, which supplies water and wastewater services to its city of 80,000.

She worked there for seven years, then took a job at the water treatment plant in nearby McAllen. Seven years later, she came to Brownsville, joining the Environmental Services Department in 2001. In 2005 she became water treatment manager, which she calls “a great career move.”

Award-winning solution

She now dedicates her career to maintaining excellent water quality for customers. Reducing arsenic levels required Adams and her team to demonstrate creativity and persistence. In 2006 the U.S. EPA lowered the drinking water standard from 0.050 mg/L to 0.010 mg/L at Brownsville’s brackish groundwater plant. Adams consulted an EPA study guide, which recommended reverse osmosis.

“That’s when we learned that RO would remove only about half of the arsenic,” says Adams, a registered environmental manager with the National Registry of Environmental Professionals (NREP) program. “That meant half of the arsenic was getting through to our drinking water. So we did a little more research and found that there are two species of arsenic — one can be removed by RO and the other can’t. We did speciation research and found out that if we oxidized the feedwater, we could convert the arsenic to a species that is rejected by the RO process.”

The answer? Add a little bit of chlorine to the feedwater to oxidize it just enough to convert the arsenic and allow the plant to become compliant. After trying various oxidizing agents, the team tried liquid chlorine bleach, but found it difficult to regulate the dosage. Then they tried chlorine gas and found that it worked well and didn’t harm the RO membranes (although the plant will add a microfiltration pretreatment system). Adams puts the experience into perspective: “It was fun, but not at the time, and yes, we all learned a lot about arsenic.”

Democracy at work

Such collaboration is a hallmark of Adams’ management style — one that has built loyalty among her team. Some have been at the plants for more than 20 years, while others are in their first year. As such, there are different levels, from apprentices to veterans who have Grade A licenses, the highest level. Adams has Grade A licenses in water and wastewater.

To motivate her team, Adams takes a democratic approach. “I have a great team and try to give them a lot of credit,” she says. “I constantly remind them that all the little things they do add up to something significant for the community. They sometimes lose sight of the fact that what they do is important, such as how well an instrument is calibrated or how well they collect a sample.

“I tell them these things affect the overall quality of the water we provide to the community. Beyond that, I try to build one-on-one relationships with my team members. That means figuring out what motivates each of them. For some it’s family, for others it’s career, so I try to personalize my relationships with them.”

Whatever she does, it works. Gomez, who has been at BPUB for 14 years, praises Adams’ “great people skills, and participative leadership style,” adding, “She’s down to earth and very popular with her group.” Adams responds by calling Gomez “a great boss, with a strong work ethic who’s also fun to work with.”

Jose Garza, chief operator at Water Plant Number 2, agrees with Gomez’s assessment, having worked for Adams for the last seven years: “Judy’s a real good boss. There are always challenges at water plants. Judy is the kind of boss who’ll get employees together, let them bounce ideas around, take the ideas of several people, put them together into one and go forward with it.”

Tested by drought

One challenge facing the three Brownsville water plants is the drought. According to The Houston Chronicle, Texas has received only 68 percent of its typical rainfall over the last two years — the third driest period on record. The most recent federal data shows 90 percent of Texas experiencing abnormally dry conditions, and 22 percent in extreme or exceptional drought. Meanwhile, as of last spring, reservoirs statewide were at low levels.

Water Plant Number 1, whose filtration system was built in 1931, and Water Plant Number 2, constructed in 1950, treat water from the Rio Grande, the fifth longest river system in the nation at 1,896 miles, forming part of the U.S.-Mexican border. At Brownsville, at the tail end of the river, the water is muddy and high in nutrients.

Adams remembers the time 10 years ago when south Texas was in extreme drought.  Brownsville faced the fact that its two reservoirs, Falcon Lake and Amistad Lake, were below 20 percent capacity. In addition, invasive plants such as water hyacinth and hydrilla blocked the flow, which was picking up sediment from the river bottom.

“That’s why the Southmost Regional Water Authority built the desalination plant, because of the drought and the chance that there wouldn’t be enough water without it,” says Adams. The BPUB has a 30-year contract to operate the facility.

“SWRA came up with using RO technology to treat brackish water, take the salt out of it and have it as an alternative water supply,” says Adams. “Our desalination facility came online in 2004 and has helped a lot during the current drought.”

With reservoirs about 35 percent full last spring, Brownsville wasn’t greatly affected by the drought. The city also own rights to divert water from the Rio Grande — communities without such rights must lease water rights or buy water from irrigation districts. Still, Adams, Gomez and their team are keeping an eye on the situation.

Preparation helps

At Adams’ request, Garza has attended several meetings around the Rio Grande Valley to get a better feel for the conditions from homeowners, irrigators and business people. If reservoir levels get lower, BPUB will have to start implementing its water conservation plan, which would include measures such as restricting watering of lawns and filling of swimming pools.

“We usually use more chemicals during the drought because the quality of the water isn’t the same, since the river isn’t flowing as much,” Adams says. “The brackish water plant provides quality water, so there’s not much of a difference there, and it helps us diversify our water supply. In general, we haven’t seen much of an impact on the quality of the water here, which is great, considering how dry it’s been.”

Adams, her experience and skills always sharp, will be ready no matter what happens. And she’ll be collaborating and coaching and cheering on her operators to do the same — minimizing risk by being prepared.


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