Right At Home

John Leonhard gave up life as a traveling trainer and technician to lead a skilled plant team and ultimately supervise a brand new regional facility.
Right At Home
Katie Robles, left, and Dan Casey, right, process service engineers with Siemens Water Technologies, perform lab tests for a phosphorus removal pilot study as John Leonhard looks on.

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Traveling the United States as a technical field service specialist for a wastewater equipment company was a great life for John Leonhard — when he was young and single.

That changed when he married and started a family. Thirty years ago, he took a job as plant superintendent in Fond du Lac, Wis., and he has been there ever since. He leads a fully cross-trained team of six operators, a maintenance team and a laboratory staff who run a 9.8 mgd (design), six-year-old regional treatment facility.

Leaving life as a “road warrior” has allowed him to spend time with his family, promote water careers in local schools and join community service organizations. On the professional side, he earned the Water Environment Federation’s 2013 William D. Hatfield award from the Central States Water Environment Association.
After a total of 45 years in the clean-water industry, he’s proud of what he and his team have done to protect the plant’s receiving water, the 137,000-acre Lake Winnebago, a nationally known walleye fishery and a haven for recreational boaters. He’s been at it long enough to see the end of his career, but observes, “I’ve got a great staff. I’m sitting here at 65 years old and my job is so pleasant that I kind of dread the thought of retiring.”

Well Traveled

A Wisconsin native, Leonhard was born in Elkhorn in the southeast corner of the state and raised in Ashland in the far northwest on Lake Superior. After earning as associate degree in machine design at Indianhead Technical College in Rice Lake, he joined Zimpro, a wastewater treatment equipment company in the Wausau area (near the center of the state) that is now part of Siemens Water Technologies.

He started out doing drawings of treatment system layouts but soon took a position training treatment plant customers to operate the company’s wet air oxidation systems for biosolids. Those systems would pressurize sludge up to 350 psi in a reactor vessel, inject air and heat the mix to 370 degrees. A 30-minute process yielded a sterile material easily dewatered to 35 or 40 percent solids on a vacuum filter.

“It was a kind of process the typical wastewater treatment plant operator wouldn’t see,” Leonhard recalls. “The high temperature and pressure, the big pumps, compressors, boiler and instrumentation — they weren’t used to dealing with that. Zimpro needed people to run the process and train customers.”

He stayed with Zimpro for 15 years, interrupted by two years in the U.S. Army that included serving in Vietnam as an infantry sergeant with the 101st Airborne Division.

While with Zimpro he also served under contract as superintendent of the Wausau Wastewater Treatment Plant.

He moved to Fond du Lac as in interim contract superintendent while the city did a search to fill the position permanently. “On their first attempt, they weren’t able to find anybody,” Leonhard says. “My wife Judy and I had just had our second son, and we thought it might be nice if we lived in one place and I wasn’t traveling all the time. I asked the city if they would consider me, and that afternoon I was on the payroll.”

Plant Progress

When he signed on in Fond du Lac, the treatment plant had a pure oxygen activated sludge process and the Zimpro wet air oxidation system. “We had sealed-top basins, and the oxygen was pumped in on top of the mixed liquor,” Leonhard recalls. “Mechanical mixers incorporated the oxygen.”
Work on the new Fond du Lac Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility began in 2005, and the plant went online in 2008. At its heart is a conventional activated sludge process with Sulzer Pumps Solutions HST blowers, fine-bubble diffusers (Sanitaire) and oxic and anoxic zones (anoxic mixers by Aqua-Aerobic Systems) for nitrification and denitrification.

The process begins with perforated-plate fine screens (JWC Environmental) and a vortex grit removal system (WesTech Engineering). The primary clarifiers (Envirex/Siemens Water Technologies) use a co-thickening process designed by the plant’s consulting engineering firm, Strand Associates.

“Waste activated sludge comes back to the head of the primaries,” says Leonhard. “The primary and waste activated sludge are commingled, and the clarifiers have a thickening mechanism in the center well. The advantage is that the primary sludge helps settle the waste activated sludge, and we’re able to send material at 3.5 percent solids to the anaerobic digesters.”

Biosolids are dewatered to 26 percent solids in a centrifuge (Centrisys) and are land-applied on farms. A 450 kW engine-generator (Caterpillar) burns digester methane to produce about one-third of the plant’s electricity.

After final clarification, effluent goes through UV disinfection (TrojanUV) and is discharged to Lake Winnebago. Typical effluent (average flow 7 mgd) contains about 3.5 mg/L BOD, 5 mg/L TSS, 0.07 mg/L total nitrogen and 0.82 mg/L phosphorus. “We had a new permit issued on January 1, 2013, and the phosphorus limit we are looking at sometime in the future will be 0.04 mg/L.”

Proud Of The Team

Keeping it all humming is an experienced team recognized for excellence. Mary Kunde, account clerk, supports Leonhard. David Carlson, sanitary engineer, leads the six plant operators: John Gremminger, Steve McCord, Michael Nolde, Joseph O’Boyle, Paul Rawlsky and Phil Schad. They earned a 2012 Treatment Facility Operations Award from Central States WEA.

The maintenance team includes Stephen Durocher, maintenance and facilities foreman; Larry Dikeman, Mark Haensgen, Paul Krueger and James Streholski, maintenance mechanics; and David Overbo, plant electrician.

James Kaiser, a chemist, is lab and pretreatment coordinator, supervising Autumn Fisher and Richard Graham, lab technicians, and Curtis Giese, sampling technician. In 2011, that team won the Wisconsin Registered Laboratory of the Year Award among large facilities from the state Department of Natural Resources.

The plant staff has been pared back significantly over the years, largely because of automation. When Leonhard came on board, the operations, maintenance, lab and administrative staffs totaled 28, of whom 18 were operators. At the time the plant was staffed around the clock, seven days a week. Now, with new process equipment and a sophisticated SCADA system with Wonderware software (Invensys), it is staffed one shift per day, five days a week. Operators take turns being on call during unstaffed hours.

“The on-call operator carries a smartphone,” says Leonhard. “If there is an alarm at the plant, he and the management people get a text, and right after that he gets a phone call.” The operator then must report to the plant to resolve the issue.

Jacks Of All Trades

The operating staff members are very much a team — plant responsibilities are divided into six roles, through which all six operators rotate at one-week intervals:
Control room operator: Takes weather readings, reviews all SCADA alarm and trending screens, maintains the operations logbook, communicates with the sanitary engineer and operators and maintenance staff on equipment and operational changes.

Plant operator: Makes rounds of buildings and thoroughly inspects equipment, checks primary and final clarifiers, does mixed liquor suspended solids sampling, works closely with the control room operator.

Centrifuge/digester operator: Runs the centrifuge and keeps the centrifuge log, makes rounds of all digester/biogas equipment, pumps scum, samples the digesters and tests for pH, changes the polymer bag and inspects the polymer system, coordinates biosolids hauling.

Industrial monitoring operator: Works with the sampling technician, works on the weekly task list doing housekeeping and operational duties as required.
Maintenance operator: Performs housekeeping and operational duties as required, starts the biogas engine/generator, takes readings and inspects the operation, works with the maintenance staff directed by the maintenance supervisor.

Relief operator: First to fill in when other operators are absent for vacation or sick leave, works on the weekly task list doing housekeeping and operational duties.

Each operator is fully trained and qualified to fulfill all six roles. The lead, control, plant and solids operator roles are considered essential — they are always filled during staffed hours. “We can’t function without people in those positions,” says Leonhard. “The other positions, although they are necessary functions, we can get by without them for a few days at a time if somebody is out sick or on vacation.”

Cross-training the team required investments, made easier because three of the operators were on staff during the latest plant upgrade. “We had intensive training as we put various systems online,” Leonhard says. “We had classroom training. Manufacturer representatives came in. Strand Associates put on classroom and hands-on training.

“We videotaped all the training. So when we brought the three newest operators onboard we were able to sit them down with the videos and operations manuals, and they were able to go through, area by area, and see what they would be doing. Of course, a considerable amount of job shadowing went with that. In addition, most of our team members have two-year degrees in water technology, and they had experience working in treatment plants when we hired them.”

Ample Rewards

A capable staff has enabled Leonhard to extend his role into the community. He made it a practice to open the plant freely to tour groups: “Any group that wants to pay a visit and find out what happens after they flush the toilet, we’ve been receptive to that.”

He has also spoken frequently to Fond du Lac high school students, spending a full day each year addressing chemistry and environmental science classes, telling about the entire water cycle, from the time water is pumped from wells until it is discharged to the lake. He also informs students about the jobs available in the water and wastewater industries, the schooling required and the pay levels.

In addition, the treatment plant hires two interns each year from area universities or technical colleges — paid positions in which the interns work in all areas of the plant.

While Leonhard enjoyed the variety of working on the road early in his career, he appreciated the chance to send down roots in Fond du Lac. “I was able to go home at lunch and see my family,” he says. “I could go home every night and get involved in community affairs. I got to be a Cub Scout leader and a Boy Scout leader and get involved with community service organizations. I’m currently the governor of the state Optimists District.”

He considers the William D. Hatfield Award a crowning achievement. “It can be issued annually to one person in a Water Environment Federation Member Organization, of which Central States WEA is one,” he says. “They look at more than just excellent treatment plant performance — involvement in the industry is important. I’ve been involved in operator training and professional organizations throughout my career.”

Leonhard is past president of Wisconsin Wastewater Operators Association, Central States WEA, and the Municipal Environmental Group, which lobbies on water issues before the Wisconsin legislature, the Department of Natural Resources and the Public Service Commission.

“The award is the pinnacle for someone involved in plant operations,” he says. “The only thing that goes beyond it is having your picture on the cover of the Rolling Stone.”  

More Information

Aqua-Aerobic Systems, Inc. - 800/940-5008 - www.aqua-aerobic.com

Caterpillar, Inc. - 309/675-1000 - www.catgaspower.com

Centrisys Corporation - 877/339-5496 - www.centrisys.us

Invensys Operations Management - 949/727-3200 - www.iom.invensys.com

JWC Environmental - 800/331-2277 - www.jwce.com

Sanitaire - a Xylem Brand - 414/365-2200 - www.sanitaire.com

Siemens Water Technologies Corp. - 866/926-8420 - www.water.siemens.com

Sulzer Pumps / ABS - 800/525-7790 - www.sulzer.com

TrojanUV - 888/220-6118 - www.trojanuv.com

WesTech Engineering, Inc. - 801/265-1000 - www.westech-inc.com


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