Kansas City Operator Emphasizes Mentoring

Award-winning operator Kevin Williams succeeds at one of Missouri’s largest water plants by helping others as supervisor, trainer and problem solver.
Kansas City Operator Emphasizes Mentoring
Kevin Williams, chief operator, Kansas City Water Supply Treatment plant.

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Kevin Williams grew up around water treatment plants: His earliest memories include riding in a truck with his dad to locate a water main break.

He didn’t choose a career in water treatment out of high school, instead taking computer programming courses at a vocational school in Platte City, Missouri. Finding jobs scarce in that field, he went to W.W. Grainger and worked in assembly, inventory handling and quality control before finding his way to the Kansas City Water Supply Treatment Plant as an operator trainee in 1999.

It was the start of a productive career that now spans 16 years of challenges. As chief operator, Williams oversees 13 pumping stations with 91 pumps, five water towers and 2,800 miles of pipe. He’s also challenged to keep up with technology, balance a tight budget and decide which equipment to replace at an 87-year-old plant. For his efforts, Williams earned the 2014 State Operator of the Year award from the Missouri Water and Wastewater Conference, after first winning a regional award.

Besides supervising 10 operators on his shift, Williams works on “special projects to help people.” For example, he followed his father as a Department of Natural Resources (DNR) trainer. “This isn’t required as part of my job, but I started providing classroom and hands-on training on the side so operators could get their DNR credit hours for retaining their water licenses,” Williams says. “I update plant training and treatment materials and then reapprove them through the DNR.” It’s another way he gives back to the profession.

Passing the test

When Williams was hired at the Kansas City plant, he had no operator certification. “I went in cold, with no training, but was able to earn my D trainee license and then my C license the first year, after they sent me to a DNR 12-day training class,” he says. Three years later, he earned his B and A licenses. After five years as an operator and five as a senior operator, Williams moved up to chief operator in 2009.

His mentors include Carl Stepp, plant purification superintendent; Doug Carr, pumping superintendent; and Mike Klender and John Reddy III, plant managers. But his first mentor was his father, David Williams. “He provided training, support and advice and was always there when I needed him. He gave me the work ethic to achieve my goals.”

The Kansas City Water Supply Treatment Plant is operated by Kansas City (Missouri) Water Services, which also handles water distribution, wastewater collection and treatment, and stormwater management for 600,000 customers, besides serving 33 wholesale customers in the region. 

The city’s first water plant opened in 1875. A new facility built in 1928 increased capacity from 5.0 to 110 mgd, and a 1950s upgrade raised that to 207 mgd. Today, the plant is permitted for 240 mgd and delivers an average of 104 mgd.

Raw water from the Missouri River and a wellfield is pumped to six primary basins for settling and chemical addition (polymer and return lime sludge from the secondary basins). After chlorine, lime, potassium permanganate and ammonia addition, the water goes to six secondary settling basins. It is treated with carbon dioxide and, if needed, with carbon to improve taste and odor before moving to six final settling basins. From there, the water enters the plant’s 36 filters and is treated with fluoride and phosphate.

Twenty-eight operators keep the plant running around the clock. Williams typically works 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and is one of two supervisors on that shift. After holding a quick meeting with the night shift operator to discuss any problems, Williams huddles with the shift operators. “On a typical day, I’m checking the SCADA pumping screen, taking care of the time cards, working with contractors and overseeing treatment adjustments after operators have completed chemical analysis every four hours. If everything is running smoothly, I catch up on paperwork.”

He also trains new operators. “We like to bring them in and train them ourselves with courses we have adapted for the purpose and with classes approved by the DNR.” 

Hiring from within

As chief operator, Williams must stay on his toes. “We have different levels of operator experience, from 20-plus years to four months, and all the chief operators are mentors and are here to train our subordinates,” he says. “We always let operators realize their full potential.” The plant promotes from within, and employees are groomed to move to the next level. 

Williams is a goal-oriented manager: “I like to give operators the tools they need to be able to run with the ball. I was given the chance to do more than just fill a time slot, and I want that for everyone else.”

Besides Williams, the chief operators (Level A certified) are Robert Slusher, first shift; Mike Brower and Tad Miles, second shift; and John McCord, third shift. The first-shift operators reporting to Williams are:

  • Senior operators Cody Gazaway (Level A) and Tommy Hardy (Level B)
  • Level C operators Darry Brown, Carl Hininger, Lawrence Hoffman, Dustin Layton, Scott Lochner, David Scott and Luther Tidwell
  • Level D operator Robert McCall

Meeting challenges

The plant’s greatest challenge is keeping the equipment in good repair and replacing older equipment with new technology. Water supply maintenance technicians and electricians handle most equipment and plant maintenance.

“The plant is too big for us to wear many hats,” Williams says. “Operators don’t tear apart pumps but spend all of their time operating the plant.” That includes staying on top of water supply changes, such as when water mains are isolated for projects or repairs, or when the fire department calls for more pressure. Scheduled equipment checks help make sure all is running properly.

“Money is tight, but the city is doing a fine balancing act to keep equipment running by setting aside some funds for repairs and replacements,” Williams says. The operators serve as eyes and ears by collecting data on needed equipment upgrades. For example, the plant recently replaced or redesigned its 36 filters.

“It was cumbersome to juggle the timing of handing off the various filters to the contractors to work on,” Williams recalls. “Also, jackhammers near the filters caused shaking, which in turn enabled particles trapped by the sand to sift down and pass through the filters. We had to run quite a few turbidity samples by hand after that.”

A new carbon feed system was added November 2014. “As the system grows, we add new pump stations and water towers,” says Williams. “Our Arrowhead booster station went from a one-pump shed to a large building complex with three electrical units and two gas engines with a 5-million-gallon standing reservoir.” The utility is adding a new water tower in the northeast section of the city and rehabilitating a major pumping station with seven 30 mgd pumps and another station with four 25 mgd pumps.

“Our ultimate goal is to convert from manual to automated systems,” Williams says. “Our challenge is to upgrade at a pace where everything will interface easily. That takes a lot of time and planning.” Although upgrades are handled by city engineers, plant operators can make suggestions about projects during the planning stage.

The plant team is proud of the product water quality. “Our goal has always been to stay at least 10 years ahead of regulatory changes,” Williams says. “Treatment-wise, we are always ahead of the curve.” Aside from an increase in organics and odor in fall and farm runoff with spring rains, treatment is fairly routine. “It’s the same thing every year, and we have perfected the treatment because we know what chemicals to add and when. If we see issues with the water, we check samples right away in our state-certified lab.”

Future goals

Although Williams will be eligible to retire in nine years, he would like to move up, not out. “Most people don’t stay in one place that long, but I stuck with it, moved up and learned a lot,” he says. “I’ve met the qualifications for a superintendent position, so that’s what I’d like to do at some point.

“My dad and my mom, Martha Jane Williams, are the biggest supporters I will ever have. My family is important, and I’m very proud of my wife, Teresa, who has raised our daughter to be a very smart girl in her third year of college. Teresa is a great sounding board, since she is the one who has to listen to me every day after work. I am lucky she has stood by my side for the last 23 years.”

Stepp, purification superintendent, enjoys working with Williams because of his enthusiasm and his willingness to learn and to help train others: “He looks for ways to improve himself as well as plant processes.”

Says Williams, “There isn’t a day that I don’t learn something new, and I will stay here as long as they’ll have me.”   


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