Learning by Doing

Interns at the water and wastewater utility in Denton, Texas, gain valuable skills while helping staff members perform essential tasks.
Learning by Doing
Intern Benjamin Cruz deploys monitoring equipment at the plant raw water intake in Lewisville Lake. Interns are trained to program, deploy and retrieve monitoring devices and analyze and interpret the data at monitoring stations around the city. This intern went on to become a public health officer in the U.S. Air Force.

The Water Utilities Department in Denton, Texas, is proud of educating its community about water conservation, water protection and nonpoint source pollution.

The staff regularly provides school, college, community and professional groups with tours of the drinking water and wastewater treatment plants. But Denton’s educational mission goes farther, to include a robust internship program that gives learning opportunities to as many as five college students each year.

University contacts

The Denton Public Works staff works closely with the University of North Texas, Texas Woman’s University and North Central Texas College, according to David Hunter, manager of watershed protection and industrial pretreatment for Denton’s Environmental Services and Sustainability Department.

“We are part of the curriculum for all three of these institutions and regularly reach out to them about internship opportunities,” says Hunter. Whether the internships are paid or voluntary, students learn about the operation of the water plants by supporting the staff members: 15 in the two water plants, 21 in the wastewater plant, eight in the lab and eight in industrial pretreatment.

Interns first learn how to handle simple operational tasks and may be trained to operate monitoring equipment, perform laboratory and field analyses, and use various computer models that explain surface water phenomena. Those who show strong interest and aptitude gradually gain more responsibility.

Learning through challenges

Denton’s Lake Lewisville Water Treatment Plant and the newer Ray Roberts Water Production Plant produce a combined 50 mgd for Denton’s 120,000 residents. Interns experience how the drinking water and wastewater treatment staffs work together on the department’s challenges. Lake Lewisville, one of two water sources, lies 10 miles downstream from where wastewater effluent is discharged.

“Our current watershed intern visits area schools to speak about these challenges and the importance of our wastewater treatment program, while also completing research on toxicology of specific substances in the wastewater system,” says Hunter. “Another intern is doing some amazing things in our pretreatment program.

“We believe that water resource management — including drinking water, wastewater and stormwater — provides cool opportunities for interns to apply what they’ve learned in school to our day-to-day operations. They also get hands-on experience using some very sophisticated tools, several of which are the same as those used by NASA.”

The majority of Denton’s interns are about to graduate or are pursuing graduate degrees. The utility tries to provide high-potential interns with a small stipend. Those selected for internships may be in programs that require them to complete research projects that are adaptable to water or wastewater operations. On occasion, interns may be assigned research projects that benefit the utility, such as studies on the fate and transport of emerging contaminants.

Championing careers

While encouraging careers in water or wastewater, Denton staff members try to ensure that tour groups and interns understand how public water utilities connect, and that water careers involve many disciplines such as finance, economics, computer science, engineering, purchasing, genetic testing and even forensic science. They proudly point to one former intern who went on to a career as a Navy entomologist and environmental health officer.

“I end every tour with a discussion of all the careers available in water utilities,” says Kathy Gault, SCADA-regulatory coordinator in the Water Production Department. “Although it’s still a male-dominated area, the number of women in the field is definitely increasing. I started my career in wastewater almost 25 years ago and moved to drinking water 17 years ago.” Three of the city’s current interns are women.

Hunter says the utility eventually wants to bring in even more interns, including one or two from high schools. The effects of recent droughts across the state, and an increase in zebra mussels in inland waters, have created more reasons to have interns. Hunter envisions them helping the staff address needs such as financial and risk projections for water usage and conservation scenarios.

“I’m a true cheerleader for water-related careers,” says Hunter. “No matter where you go in the world or what level of economic success you obtain, you will always need to flush a toilet or get clean drinking water. Which means, from a job standpoint, there will always be rewarding careers in drinking water and wastewater treatment.”


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