Career Builder: Willison Traces Career To Outdoor Interests

Josh Willison made all the right moves as a young Missouri wastewater operator, learning the treatment business, serving the community and winning a prestigious award.
Career Builder: Willison Traces Career To Outdoor Interests
Josh Willison, holder of a Class C operator’s license, is responsible for six small treatment plants in capacities from 5,000 to 60,000 gpd, serving about 4,000 customers in several subdivisions.

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With barely eight years in the wastewater industry, operator Joshua “Josh” Willison is a young man with a bright future. Serving the Franklin County (Missouri) Water & Sewer District, Willison is focused on advancing his career — and already has an award to show for his commitment to clean water.

Last September, Willison, 30, received the Young Professional of the Year award from the Missouri Water and Wastewater Conference. The award recognizes top performing members who go the extra mile to complete jobs efficiently and to the highest of standards. 

That description fits Willison perfectly, according to senior executives at Alliance Water Resources, which provides contract water and wastewater services to Franklin County. “Josh is very proficient, constantly striving to improve our operations to see that our facilities have the best performance possible,” says Mike Dougherty, Alliance division manager. “We are glad Josh is part of our team and appreciate the good work he does for us and our customers.”

Self-effacing, Willison sees the recognition as just another step forward in his career: “I was really surprised that I won the award. I knew I’d been nominated, but it came as quite a shock when I got it at the MWWC dinner in Jefferson City, with all those other water and wastewater professionals there.”

From college to career

Willison’s career traces its roots to his lifelong interest in the outdoors, including hunting and fishing. He was born and raised in Greensboro, North Carolina, but during his sophomore year of high school, his father got a job transfer and moved the family to Liberty, Missouri, a city of 29,000 near Kansas City. After high school, Willison went to the University of Missouri, where in 2007 he earned a bachelor’s degree in fish and wildlife.

His first job out of college was as an operator at a wastewater treatment plant in California — not the state, but a small city by that name in central Missouri. “I was attracted to wastewater because it offered steady work, a chance to use my background in science, and the opportunity to improve the environment and make the community a better place to live,” Willison recalls.

He stayed there until December 2010, when he joined the Missouri Department of Natural Resources in Jefferson City as an environmental specialist I and made himself a valuable resource to the agency’s Water Protection Program. “Josh was very helpful to me in getting started with the Compliance and Enforcement Section,” says John Fraga, unit chief for the program, who nominated Willison for the Young Professional award. “Josh did a lot of things to help us maintain clean drinking water. That included looking after the state’s 2,700 water systems, which required heavy data entry as well as tracking and lots of enforcement activities.”

Enforcement support

At the DNR, Willison helped Fraga and his team implement the U.S. EPA’s 2011 Enforcement Response Policy (ERP), aimed at ensuring consistency and fairness in setting priorities for enforcement actions against public water systems. The policy emphasized compliance rather than addressing violations, helping to increase the EPA’s effectiveness in protecting public health. Willison did everything from recording data to tracking the results of water-assessment sampling some communities were required to perform monthly to ensure that they met clean-water standards.

With the ERP came an Enforcement Targeting Tool (ETT), a calculation system states use to help identify and prioritize public water systems for enforcement. As part of the ETT, Fraga’s group got quarterly reports from the EPA that ranked Missouri drinking water systems that were in noncompliance. The DNR unit was required to evaluate those reports and then take formal enforcement action to return the systems to compliance.

Willison’s drive and knack for data entry made a big difference. “Before we hired Josh, we’d been floundering around with the ETT, but once he got on board he really helped us sort things out,” says Fraga. “We had to analyze about 250 systems each quarter, all their violations, and check to see if EPA had a method for returning them to compliance.

“We also worked with the Safe Water Information System, in which each state enters its drinking water systems so the EPA can track them. Josh had a pretty big role in all this. He became instrumental in creating a database, making it a whole lot easier to analyze those lists. In working with Josh, I found him eager to jump in and help, very supportive of new ideas and always willing to do whatever it took to get the job done.”

Strong work ethic

In July 2014, after his wife, Rebecca, got her master’s degree in statistics from the University of Missouri, the couple moved to Chesterfield, a second-ring suburb of 47,000 west of St. Louis. 

Willison, by this time an environmental specialist III, left the DNR and went to work for Alliance Water Resources, which provides contract operations and management services for municipal and community water, wastewater and public works systems in Missouri, Iowa and Tennessee.

Alliance manages 19 small extended-aeration package wastewater treatment plants scattered over 150 square miles of Franklin County (population more than 100,000) on the outskirts of St. Louis. The package plants work in a manner similar to septic systems and sewage lagoons: Solids settle out of the water, the remaining organic matter is broken down by microorganisms and treated water is discharged to creeks. Sludge is pumped out of the systems and hauled off. 

Willison, who has a Class C wastewater operator’s license, is responsible for six of those plants, in capacities from 5,000 to 60,000 gpd serving some 4,000 customers in several subdivisions. He also works on some of the 30 miles of county sewer lines Alliance maintains, using a high-pressure water jetter (Sewer Equipment Company of America) to clean the lines of grease, soil and ice buildup.

Alliance, which has managed the Franklin County water and wastewater operations since 1994, staffs the plants from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Operators rotate on-call duty during off hours and weekends; Willison is usually available to come in when needed.  

“During a typical day, I’ll check on all the plants to make sure they’re running properly,” Willison says. “Then I’ll do my pH and BOD tests and work on the pumps to make sure they’re OK. We have ABS grinder pumps (Sulzer Pumps Solutions Inc.) at most of the sites we serve. They’re basically small pumps with an opening much like a garbage disposal. When the pump kicks on, it grinds the larger sewage and pumps the ground material up and out. If there are any problems, we’re responsible for fixing them or sending them out for repair.”

Eager to help

Although he hasn’t had any floods or other disasters to deal with, Willison has encountered heavy summer rainfall that has caused inflow and infiltration (I&I) issues, creating spikes in flow at the treatment plants. He takes such occurrences in stride: “The biggest problem with heavy rain is making sure you’re processing the wastewater and not having it washed back into the creeks untreated.”

Such a strong work ethic hasn’t escaped the notice of Willison’s co-workers and boss: They admire his eagerness to pitch in and help, regardless of the task on the water or wastewater side. Fellow wastewater operator, Lonnie Madole, who operates five plants, calls Willison, “A real good guy, easy to work with and ready to do anything. You have to be prepared to get your hands dirty in this job, and Josh is willing to do that on a daily basis.”

Bob Hathcock, project manager, who supervises 11 water and wastewater operators, observes, “Josh is easy to get along with and the kind of worker every boss likes. He’s not afraid to do the dirty jobs or take the lead when the situation requires it.”

With an award under his belt, plenty of on-the-job training, and encouragement from colleagues and supervisors, Willison has his eyes set on moving up in the wastewater industry. He continues to take classes as part of the state’s continuing education requirement of 30 hours of annual coursework. By the end of 2015, he expects to take the exam for his Class B license.

“I really like serving the public, and I want to continue in the field and grow in my career,” says Willison. “So far, wastewater has been a great fit.”   


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