Big Aspirations

Operators at a Missouri lagoon treatment system maintain compliance while looking to progressive steps like biosolids land application and solar energy.
Big Aspirations
Mike Letourneau, city engineer, stands beside the largest of Lincoln’s three wastewater treatment lagoons.

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The Town of Lincoln has been described as the “front door to Missouri’s great lakes,” Lake of the Ozarks and Truman Lake. It is a popular hunting and fishing area only a few hours from the major cities.

Despite its rural location and small population (1,000), the Missouri Department of Natural Resources required the town to put in a sewer system to protect Truman Lake. The system, with five lift stations and 13 miles of sewer line, was completed in 1998.

The town’s wastewater treatment plant, one of the few lagoon systems left in the state, does a stellar job of handling 33,000 gpd. Its two operators handle both water and wastewater treatment and do everything from dealing with I&I to helping replace 70,000 feet of wastewater lines and plowing town roads. They’ve also picked up a few awards from the Missouri Rural Water Association (MRWA).

“We maintain good records and keep the facility up to standards,” says Mike Letourneau, director of the Department of Public Works. “When we were nominated by our peers for 2012 Wastewater Treatment Facility of the Year, the MRWA people came to the plant and interviewed us, looked at our records, and went from there. We were surprised when we won.” Letourneau also received the MRWA’s 2008 Operator of the Year for his work on upgrading water mains and hydrants.

Letourneau and Dustin Koll, assistant DPW director, hold Class C wastewater and Level 3 water distribution system licenses and have been with the town for 12 years. Lincoln was their first water treatment job.

Farm to lagoon

Raised on a farm, Koll started working at the Lincoln plant during summers and was hired full-time when he graduated from high school. “It sounded like a good job and was something I had never done before,” he says. He learned by doing, with help from Letourneau, who observes, “Farm boys are hard to beat when you need someone you can count on.” Koll still helps his dad on the family’s 200-acre cattle farm.

Letourneau started with the town as an engineer. Before that, he owned a construction firm in Houston, Texas, that did water plant construction. “As town engineer, I was responsible for drinking water and wastewater operation, building inspection and street maintenance, and was also the airport manager and dog catcher,” he recalls.

Letourneau and Koll spend most of their time maintaining the plant’s lagoon system, which consists of three cells that cover 7.0, 22.9 and 1.3 acres. The system holds 24 million gallons and typically discharges 33,000 to 133,000 gpd, depending on weather conditions. “We’re in a drought now, so we’re discharging 33,000 per day,” says Letourneau. Discharge is to a tributary of Little Tebo Creek, which winds eight miles to Truman Lake.

The operators check the lagoons first thing in the morning, then inspect the lift stations and water wells. They draw wastewater samples and send them to an outside lab for analysis for BOD, TSS, pH, ammonia nitrogen, fecal coliform, oil and grease. The plant permit is getting stricter. “We installed a chlorination/dechlorination system in summer 2013 to meet regulations, and although we are not exceeding the limits now, the state is also requiring us to reduce our effluent ammonia nitrogen,” says Letourneau.

The plant doesn’t have to worry about biosolids. “We perform sludge tests in cell 1 to determine the biosolids level, which is around eight inches,” says Letourneau. “Usually in August, the level gets to the point where we need to add enzymes to eat the organic waste.” Future plans include a land application system to save on chemicals and maintenance and lower electrical costs. “By 2016 we should be in compliance with Missouri Clean Water Commission regulations and Federal Water Pollution Control Act regulations to land-apply,” says Letourneau.

The operators’ greatest challenge is I&I during heavy rains. “In the past, our discharges have come close to exceeding the permit limitations,” says Koll. “There is always the act of God and you can’t control that.”

Supportive town

Letourneau and Koll are involved in replacing the town’s 13 miles of sewers. “They were made out of clay, and we’re putting in plastic ones,” says Letourneau. “We contract it out, since we don’t have the equipment, but we help with the work.” Each year, 400 to 800 feet are replaced; 7,500 feet have been completed so far.

“The town is supportive and interested in what we do,” Letourneau says. “Most anytime I ask for something, I pretty much get it, but I’d better have it spelled out because it’s the town’s money. Right now, we’re trying to get a ground-based solar power system for our lift stations. Our council members are in favor of adding it and getting away from using fossil fuel. We’d like to be as green as possible.”

The total cost will be $80,000; a rebate from local utility KCP&L will cover the first $50,000. Letourneau estimates that solar systems at two lift stations will save $1,000 per month on electricity costs. The town will also get renewable energy credits if the solar systems produce more energy than the lift stations use.

“We can save $30,000 to $40,000 on each system by doing the installation ourselves,” Letourneau says. “We’re trying to meet a July 2014 deadline, so we can then concentrate on the land application system to meet 2016 needs.”

Getting help

Letourneau and Koll call on the MRWA for assistance. “If we have a problem, they send people out to help, and we also return the favor,” says Letourneau. “We’re like brothers and sisters — one big happy family, which is rare these days.” They keep up their continuing education credits by taking classes through MRWA and the state Department of Natural Resources. The U.S. EPA funds many of the classes.

The two operators agree that the best part of the job is talking to the public. “They’re pretty in-formed,” says Letourneau. “The older folks tell you the way things were done in the past, and the younger ones tell you how you ought to do things. I listen to them, and we try to combine the old technologies with modern ones.”

Working in a small community means being on call for emergencies. Letourneau and Koll are sometimes called out in the middle of the night to deal with sewer backups. “It’s usually caused when homeowners accidentally put products down the sewer lines that don’t belong there, or from bad connections from their lines to the mains,” Letourneau says. The operators clear lines with the town’s trailer-mounted water jetter, which operates at more than 2,500 psi.

One emergency came on Christmas Eve 2012 when a lift station pump malfunctioned. “We had to use one of our two portable pumps to pump uphill to a manhole, and then repair the lift station pump so it would be back online on Christmas Day,” Letourneau says. Winter duties include snow plowing: “Twenty-four inches of snow doesn’t bother us here, and in fact everyone compliments us on the great job we do. When we got 24 inches in 2011, Dusty and I worked 36 hours straight to clear the roads.”

Labor of love

As someone whose career has been with a small water system, Letourneau offers encouragement to others like him: “The job often doesn’t pay much, but keep working with your council to help you out. You’re not getting rich, but it’s more a labor of love.”

He points out that while operators may make more in bigger cities, it costs more to live there. “It really depends on the type of life you want,” he says. “For night life, go to the city. For a more laid-back life, go to the smaller towns. Our greatest satisfaction is the response we get from local citizens on how well we have done, and the occasional pat on the back. It matters.”

Koll agrees: “I’m so glad I chose the water field. Great work, great people!”


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