Water Operator Brian Bishop Takes No Shortcuts In Serving His Vermont Community

Whether supervising a major plant upgrade or handling daily operations, Brian Bishop takes no shortcuts in serving his Vermont community.
Water Operator Brian Bishop Takes No Shortcuts In Serving His Vermont Community
Brian Bishop, chief operator at the Swanton (Vt.) Water Treatment Plant.

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If there’s one word that describes Brian Bishop it’s “serious.” Ask his boss, his mentor or the engineers who worked with him on a major upgrade to the Swanton (Vt.) Water Treatment Plant, and they’ll say the same thing: When it comes to his job, Bishop is one serious guy.

With good reason: He’s sole operator of Swanton’s 1 mgd water plant, which in 2011-2012 underwent a $5 million upgrade that came in $800,000 under budget and enabled this village of 3,000 on the shores of Lake Champlain to invest in improving its distribution system. Even more impressive is that during the project, Bishop kept the water flowing, sometimes working around the clock.

Such dedication earned Bishop the 2013 Michael J. Garofano Water Operator of the Year Award from the Green Mountain Water Environment Association, “for outstanding performance in system maintenance, protecting public health and achievement beyond normal responsibilities.” The award is named for a water treatment plant supervisor who died, along with his son, during Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011 while inspecting a reservoir. In announcing the award, the association called Garofano, “a stubborn perfectionist.”

That easily could describe Bishop, who has devoted the past 15 years to ensuring quality water for residents of Swanton, a picturesque community in northwestern Vermont. Not that Bishop sees himself as especially award-worthy — for him it’s just part of a job he took to heart from the moment he started.

“Frankly, I was surprised I won the award,” Bishop says in a quiet voice. “I don’t like being singled out, but I think it’s good for folks in the field to see that when people put in extra effort they can get positive recognition. For me, 2012 was a very strenuous year. I logged many, many hours making sure things got done right.”

Building a career

A native of Franklin, Vt., Bishop graduated from Missisquoi Valley Union High School in Swanton and, after working for a while, joined the Navy in 1984. After basic training and classes, he was stationed at Kaneohe Marine Corps base on Oahu, Hawaii, for 3 1/2 years. On his return he got a job as assistant operator at the Sheldon Hydroelectric Plant, then joined the village’s Orman Croft Hydroelectric Plant as an operator in 1994.

When the chief water operator position opened up in 1999, he took it, learned the treatment processes and made water his career. Bishop holds a Class 4-C water license and a Grade 3-D wastewater license, “so the guys in the wastewater plant and I can back each other up.”

He earned his stripes dealing with challenges that arose at the plant, built in 1977. These included maintaining the original raw-water and high-lift pumps and two Neptune Microfloc filtration units (Aquarius Technologies). Because there was no automation, he had to run the treatment system manually. That meant constantly adjusting chemical dosages (aluminum sulfate, chlorine), backwash cycles and other functions as he strived to produce the best-quality water possible from an older plant.

One major obstacle was the lack of state-mandated redundancy in the filtration system: Each filter had a capacity of 450,000 gpd, so both had to be operated at times to meet maximum day demands. Fortunately, he was able to optimize the filtration process through enhanced coagulation so that the village could comply with the state’s Stage 2 disinfection byproducts regulations.

‘Wonderful operator’

A pumping station on Lake Champlain pumps raw water across the road to the Swanton plant. Bishop adds aluminum sulfate (alum) as his main coagulant before sending the water through a two-stage filtration process, where it first goes through a bed of floating plastic beads and then through sand filters. The processed water then flows into a clearwell and from there it is pumped up to a storage tank in town at the end of the distribution system.

“I sometimes find the responsibility overwhelming, but I have great support from my co-workers which really helps,” says Bishop, who lives next door to the plant. “I took my responsibilities very seriously right from the get-go. I’ve worked hard and I think I’ve gained a lot of respect from village and state officials, which I find gratifying.”

One of those boosters is Ray Solomon, an environmental scientist for the State of Vermont who served as Bishop’s mentor during his early days at the water plant. Now a part-time consultant for the state, Solomon calls Bishop, “a wonderful water treatment plant operator. He knew what he didn’t know, and he asked and made sure what he was doing was correct. I was helping him quite a bit when he started, but over the years, he became very competent in terms of treatment processes.

“Brian stands out as someone who goes the extra mile. He’s extremely conscientious, and he’s always looking out for the best interest of his customers, especially from a public-health standpoint. We have a lot of good operators, but Brian is one of the best.”

Major upgrade

Bishop’s commitment really came to the fore during the plant upgrade, a wholesale renovation that included:

  • Two 1-million-gallon sand-and-anthracite filters (WesTech Engineering) for redundancy.
  • New variable-speed raw-water pumps, backwash pumps, high-lift pumps and low-lift pumps (Sulzer).
  • A two-stage disinfection system using sodium hypochlorite and UV light.
  • A SCADA system (LCS Controls) that lets Bishop monitor and control pH levels, turbidity and other parameters from his office.

In addition, the entire facility, which looks like a big house on the 120-mile-long lake, was rehabilitated. General contractor NECCO and several subcontractors replaced the electrical and HVAC system, renovated the offices, installed stainless steel piping, painted the facility and put in new landscaping. And, at Bishop’s suggestion, they replaced the two sludge lagoons that handled the backwash with a three-lagoon system. This enables freeze-drying of the built-up alum residuals, reducing the village’s sludge disposal costs.

In the freeze-and-drying process, residuals break down from a pudding-like material (after dewatering) from about 3 feet of sludge to less than a foot of powder, reducing the amount of material taken to the landfill. Moreover, the sludge does not have to be mechanically dewatered first — another cost saver — and the lagoons can be rotated several years before cleaning instead of being cleaned every year.

Despite the often-chaotic environment, Bishop kept the plant operating without a hitch — and helped bring the project in under budget — through sheer determination. “Brian was at times close to being overzealous in his supervising of the upgrade,” observes Reginald Beliveau, village manager and 26-year IBM veteran, who supported Bishop’s award nomination with a letter to the WEA. “He sweated the details and got results. The plant work was approved by voters for $5 million, and we came in at $4.2 million, which gave us extra funds to spend on repairing our water mains and transmission lines.”

Vital interaction

Though the project was well-orchestrated, Bishop would stop the work if something bothered him. “He wasn’t afraid to say, ‘I don’t like this — you can’t do it this way,’” Beliveau says. “While that might have caused the engineers a little consternation, in the end the village never lost water and the quality remained at the same high standard. In fact, things are even better now because of the new system. Brian was over-and-above cautious, but it’s nice to have someone who cares about what they do.”

Bishop admits, “During the upgrade, I lay awake many nights trying to figure out how to keep the customers from knowing that anything was happening down here, whether it was water pressure or quality. Yes, I put in a lot of hours — probably enough to take a long vacation — but I wanted everything to be right for the residents.”

Another who can attest to Bishop’s single-mindedness is Brad Aldrich, P.E., a principal at the Aldrich + Elliott water resources engineering firm, which designed the plant upgrade and oversaw its construction. He calls Bishop “great to work with — fun and very engaged throughout the renovation process.” In fact, the A+E team nominated Bishop for the Garofano award based on his drive and leadership.

Working with Bishop, Aldrich’s engineers overcame many hurdles, chief among them building and installing the new filters and upgrading the pumps while maintaining existing water treatment processes. That meant taking out the old filter and putting another one in, then doing the same with the other filter. The same care applied to the pumps: Each had to be removed and a spare kept running so that water operations would be unaffected. That required daily coordination with Bishop, A+E’s field representative and the contractor.

Top priority

Accolades aside, Bishop remains sober in his outlook. He walks to the plant about 7:30 every morning and does his regular daily process sampling, plus the regulatory sampling required by the state and the U.S. EPA. After adjusting the chemical dosing, he heads into the village, takes a chlorine residual sample and checks out the system, including the 1.5-million-gallon enclosed reservoir. He also handles all the paperwork and interfaces with state inspectors, calling on Beliveau when he needs help.

Beyond the plant, Bishop has been married for 29 years. He has a daughter who is married to a U.S. Army Afghanistan veteran stationed at Fort Lewis in the state of Washington, and a son “heavy into politics,” living in Washington, D.C. Although he might not miss being called at 2 a.m. to deal with a broken water main or malfunctioning filter, he still considers water a good career. That includes taking continuing education courses every year to keep up his certification. At most classes he is one of the younger attendees, a reminder that the industry needs to attract young people to become water plant operators.

“I have 20 years in with the Village of Swanton,” Bishop says. “When I’m 59 I’ll have 30 years and can start thinking about retirement. I have a pretty good resume because of the upgrade, but I have no intention of leaving. There’s no reason to go, seriously.”  

More Information

Aldrich + Elliott, PC - 802/879-7733 - www.aeengineers.com

Aquarius Technologies, Inc. - 262/268-1500 - www.aquariustechnologies.com

Sulzer Pumps, Inc. - 503/205-3600 - www.sulzerpumps.com

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



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