Iowa Plant Superintendent Kam Reeves Leads By Coaching And Example

Kam Reeves applies education, coaching and lead-by-example principles to his superintendent’s job at the Ottumwa Water Pollution Control Facility.
Iowa Plant Superintendent Kam Reeves Leads By Coaching And Example
Kam Reeves, superintendent at the Ottumwa Water Pollution Control Facility, in the headworks grit building (grit pump by Gorman-Rupp Co.).

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Kam Reeves is proof that you can start over — even when you think you’re too old — and build an award-winning wastewater career.

Now in his 19th year at the Ottumwa (Iowa) Water Pollution Control Facility, Reeves has parlayed a career as a high school teacher and a passion for instruction into a leadership position that has earned him the respect of his boss, his team members and his community.

In August 2013 Reeves’ dedication to wastewater treatment earned him the William D. Hatfield Award from the Water Environment Federation and the Iowa Water Environment Association, a career-crowning achievement that recognizes outstanding performance and professionalism. Reeves also won the city’s Outstanding Employee of the Year Award in 2006.

In each case, he downplayed his role in keeping the plant running in top form and gave credit to his team. “I’m humbled and proud to have won these awards,” says Reeves, who looks more like a university professor than a wastewater executive. “As far as I’m concerned, they represent a complete team effort and go to all of us at the plant. We all work together and rely on everyone’s expertise, from the supervisors to the operators to the lab and maintenance crews.”

Grateful for opportunity

Reeves grew up and graduated from high school in Ottumwa, a southeast Iowa city of 25,000 that calls itself the City of Bridges. Its amenities include the most park space per capita in the state, the $24 million Bridge View Center convention hall and theater, and some excellent eagle watching anywhere at a hydro dam on the Des Moines River.

Reeves feels grateful to the city for hiring him “in middle age.” He brought with him an upbeat personality and a wealth of teaching experience. After earning a bachelor’s degree in education in 1979 from Wayne State College in Wayne, Neb., he taught physical education and driver education for 10 years for the Ottumwa Community School District.

When he couldn’t find a full-time position in his specialties he went to work for the U.S. Postal Service as a letter carrier and then for the Iowa Department of Transportation as an inspector for new highway construction, running all the tests in the soil lab. Then he heard about an opening at the water pollution control facility and thought it would be a good opportunity.

“If you asked me even a couple of years before I came here, I probably would have said I didn’t have the inclination or desire,” Reeves admits. “Heck, I didn’t even know where the plant was located.” That changed when he joined the facility as an operator in 1996.

Three years later, just after Reeves attained his Grade 3 wastewater operator license, his foreman left. Seeing an opportunity to advance, he applied for the job, which was upgraded to operations supervisor, and got it. Today, Reeves has a Grade 4 license (highest) and has been plant superintendent since long-time mentor Robert Bruett retired from that role in 2013.

Transition has worked well

As superintendent, Reeves supervises a staff of 14; reports directly to Joe Helfenberger, city administrator; and works closely with other city departments. Reeves’ team includes:

  • Doyle Moore, operations supervisor; and Shawn Shepard, Steve Graham, Josh Watson, Frank Stanton, Jason Guyette and Brandon Coffman, operators
  • Patricia Davis, lab supervisor, and Julaine Olson, lab technician
  • Jesse Merrill, maintenance supervisor, and Tom Rea, maintenance technician
  • Steve Cullinan, industrial pretreatment coordinator
  • Michael Schafer, clerk

They all get the full Reeves treatment: instruction, cheerleading, mentoring and more. “It’s been a great 18 years, and I’m glad I made the transition to the wastewater plant,” says Reeves. “When I started with the city I was 41 and thought I was too old, so I was very happy to get hired. I think I’m pretty faithful and have done a good job.”

Helfenberger praises Reeves for his “focus on having a well-running operation that has never had a process violation,” and for his commitment to the facility staff.

“Kam has done an excellent job of building morale,” says Helfenberger. “We have a number of long-term people with a ton of experience who continue to work here because of Kam’s efforts to keep morale high. Good morale is the difference between gaining a little extra productivity or not.”

Facility upgrades

Reeves demonstrated a strong work ethic right from the start, as the facility in 1996 was in the second phase of a major construction project transforming it from a trickling filter plant to a 6 mgd activated sludge unit with a 12.5 mgd design flow. Over the years, he has been involved in several large capital improvement projects, including the 1998 installation of four Envirex vertical loop reactors (Evoqua Water Technologies) — one tank with four separate cells — for biological nutrient removal.

Besides those units, Reeves and the operators are responsible for the plant’s preliminary and primary treatment, clarification, filtration, anaerobic digesters and biosolids conditioning tanks. Biosolids are land-applied by a contract hauler. Team members ensure that the material meets all EPA regulations. Plant effluent discharges to the 525-mile-long Des Moines River.

The plant team members also maintain 31 lift stations, 10 of which are for stormwater, and monitor and sample 11 combined sewer overflows, which the city is working to reduce through a 25-year sewer separation project aimed at eliminating backups in basements and sewage overflows.

It’s one of $35 million in capital improvement projects the city is undertaking. Others include revitalizing the downtown, renovating the Market Street Bridge in the heart of downtown and sprucing up Main Street in a major revitalization of the city center.

A major treatment plant upgrade, installing a UV disinfection system, has been delayed for a year because of budget constraints. That means the plant staff will start work on the project in July 2015, aiming to bring the plant in compliance with its new NPDES permit limit for E. coli by October 2016.

Communication is key

“In early 2014 we finished a project where we replaced about 275 feet of force main that ran underneath a four-lane highway,” says Reeves. “We had a couple of leaks in a one-week period in September 2013, so we knew that area of ductile iron pipe would have to be replaced. HR Green, a local engineering firm, helped us get the piping in place and inspect the line with a TV camera. It was a pretty big job, and we were glad to get it done before there was a leak under the four-lane that would have disrupted traffic.”

As with all projects, Reeves maintains constant communication with the operators. He sees open lines of contact with supervisors and staff as vital to good leadership. The day-shift staff and Reeves start at 7 a.m. and work until 3:30 p.m.; operators on 3 to 11 p.m. and 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shifts ensure 24/7 coverage.

On Monday mornings, Reeves meets with his supervisors to discuss projects the plant and other city departments have going on during that week. He also touches base with operators to talk about projects, so that if they’re checking pump stations around town, they’ll know about bridge closures or access problems and specific things they may need to be aware of at pump stations. The goal is “to figure out the best solutions that will work, that are the most feasible within our tight budget, and those that are best for the residents we serve.” Those sentiments aren’t lost on his operators.

Employees grateful

“Kam is a great guy to work with,” says Shepard, a swing-shift operator and 23-year plant veteran. “He comes from being a school teacher and carries a lot of those traits with him on the job. Not only does he like to teach and keep people informed about changes in regulations and budgets, but he’s also 110 percent committed to everything he takes on. I think that’s why he gets so much respect from his people.”

Shepard, a Grade 2 operator who worked as a wastewater operator for a local company before joining the Ottumwa plant, appreciates Reeves’ inclusive management style and his willingness to “jump in with you to help out,” whether that means making process changes, maintaining pumping rates or “keeping water off people during 100-year floods that seem to happen every two years.”

Guyette, an operator at the facility for a little more than a year, calls Reeves “one of the top three bosses I’ve ever had. He has a huge heart. He puts his employees before everything else, and he respects your opinion. Kam is just a wonderful person.”

Guyette is grateful for Reeves’ support in two areas. First was helping him get up to speed during the “crazy time” he experienced as a rookie in early 2013 when he put in about 30 hours of overtime in one week because of heavy rains and flooding. The second was for helping him prepare for his Grade 1 license exam, providing “loads of literature” and study materials.

For the long haul

Reeves sees educating team members as part of his job. He offered the same encouragement a few years ago to Mat Hazelwood, who worked as a seasonal employee directly out of high school.

Says Reeves, “He took the Civil Service exam, and we hired him as an operator when an opening came up. He was with us for two years, then went to work at the Des Moines Water Reclamation Authority, where he’s now a night supervisor. It proves that with all the chances for advancement, water is an excellent career choice.”

Reeves himself hopes to stay with the Ottumwa plant and retire “in possibly seven years.” He recently bought two acres of land next to his home, giving him four acres on which he plans to build a log home in the next four or five years.

“I have no desire whatsoever to move to a larger town,” says Reeves. “Ottumwa has plenty to offer, and while I don’t enjoy winters as much as I used to, I don’t plan to become a snow bird any time soon.”

More Information

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