Idaho's Rookie-of-the-Year Operators Embrace Enthusiasm

John Pottenger and Ross Campbell entered the water business later in life. They embraced their careers with a youthful brand of enthusiasm.
Idaho's Rookie-of-the-Year Operators Embrace Enthusiasm
Ross Campbell, left, and John Pottenger earned Idaho Rural Water Association Rookie of the Year awards.

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At ages 40 and 50, John Pottenger and Ross Campbell don’t fit the classic definition of “rookie.” Yet, with little more than four years’ experience, they are making names for themselves protecting the environment and supplying clean water to the 410 residents of Riggins, Idaho.

Their efforts to learn the water and wastewater business have earned them kudos from city officials and colleagues, who cite their perseverance, teamwork and can-do attitude. In March 2014, the Idaho Rural Water Association (IRWA) presented them with Rookie of the Year awards, recognizing their contribution to the community early in their industry careers.

Steep learning curve

“When I first met John and Ross, they were very green in terms of plant operations,” observes Jason Wereley, a consultant and trainer who serves as a part-time operator at the City of Riggins Water & Sewer Department. “But they’ve grown so much since they started, it’s like 180-degree difference. I’ve found it a pure honor and joy to work with them over these last few years and see what they’ve accomplished.”

While the two shrug off such compliments and express surprise at winning the award, it’s clear they’ve come a long way in a hurry. Pottenger, sewer supervisor, is a Riggins native who grew up in a logging family. He started cutting trees as soon as he graduated from Salmon River High School and spent about 10 years in that profession. He then became a heavy-construction-equipment operator at 4-T Construction, where he worked seven years as an underground utilities foreman.

“When the recession hit, I wanted to keep my family in Riggins so I decided to get a job here,” says Pottenger, whose parents, wife, two daughters and infant son live in this west-central Idaho city, nestled deep in a canyon at the confluence of the Big Salmon and Little Salmon rivers. “I’d been around water pipes and such in construction, but I had never dealt with treatment plants. It was all Greek to me.”

Complexities abound

In 2011, Pottenger began an internship/on-the-job training program at the wastewater plant through the Workforce Investment Act, managed by the Idaho Department of Labor. For a novice operator, handling the Riggins Wastewater Treatment Plant seemed a pretty big task. It’s a Class II activated sludge plant on the north side of town that handles about 60,000 gpd, and up to 80,000 gpd during the peak summer tourist season, with attractions that include salmon and trout fishing, rafting and hunting.

Designed in 1972, the facility underwent a $2.8 million renovation in 2010, after an upgrade in 2009 that added a bar screen, de-ragging equipment, an aeration basin, digester, clarifier, chlorine contact tank and Geotube containers (TenCate) for cold-weather dewatering of biosolids, with help from polymer addition. During warmer weather, the solids are wasted into four sand beds. The plant discharges effluent to the Big Salmon River.

Six months after Pottenger came on board, Campbell was hired to manage the water treatment plant, which processes 40,000 to 90,000 gpd. As water supervisor, his job includes delivering drinking water drawn from two wells near the Big Salmon River and taking care of the city’s 380,000-gallon reservoir, a 10-inch transmission main, and 4- and 6-inch lines that support 461 service connections. He is also responsible for 2.4 miles of irrigation ditch, city parks and city streets.

Campbell, a native of Farmington, Utah, had been in Riggins for only a couple of years, after spending 15 years in Boise as a painting contractor. He sought a new career when the economy slowed down. Before that, he worked as a baker for about 18 years.

Learning on the run

“As a learning opportunity, the Riggins water plant and treatment plant were perfect, challenges and all,” says Campbell, whose wife is from the Riggins area and wanted to raise their 4-year-old daughter there. “I learned that the city had recently redone its wells and some distribution, so I knew there was a strong commitment to clean water. And with the current superintendent planning to retire, it seemed as if there was a chance for advancement.”

Pottenger and Campbell wasted no time getting up to speed. They contacted the College of Continuing Education at Sacramento State University, which shipped them a 700-page textbook on water and waste- water. Their relentless studying paid off: Pottenger, who “never read so much in my life,” earned Drinking Water Distribution Operator Very Small Water System, Collection I and Wastewater Treatment I licenses, and Campbell has Drinking Water Distribution Operator Very Small Water System and Wastewater Treatment II and Collection I certifications.

They also became friends with people from the IRWA, who put them in touch with Wereley, a 20-year water and wastewater veteran whom the city quickly hired as an operator, troubleshooter and mentor. With help from Wereley, whose E3 Consulting business provides training, support and operating help throughout Idaho, they do it all – tending to the treatment plants, sewers, irrigation ditch, waterlines and five lift stations.

Teamwork and creativity

Such diligence isn’t lost on city officials. Brenda Tilley, city clerk/treasurer, observes, “John and Ross are good at their jobs. They’ve faced challenges head on and are implementing programs and processes to benefit the city.” She also praises their “willingness to help whenever asked, checking in throughout the day to see if anything needs to be done.”

One example of their joint efforts is the 2014 Cemetery Hill Water Replacement Project. Campbell researched ways to reduce costs to replace 1,880 linear feet of 6-inch steel waterline, which at $180,000 the city couldn’t afford. He got the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to classify the job as an emergency because of numerous water leaks. As a result, Riggins didn’t need to hire an engineer to oversee the work; it was completed with regular work crews for $28,000.

“Projects like this typify the collaboration John and Ross demonstrate on a daily basis,” observes Mayor Glenna McClure. “They’re both great to work with, and the residents of Riggins have come to accept them as dedicated employees who make a positive contribution by providing wastewater and water services efficiently and cost-effectively.”

Jobs paramount

Pottenger and Campbell remain focused on their jobs. They work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., 10 days on and four days off. Pottenger starts by doing mixed-liquor tests, then checks the lift stations and water tank, and does “what needs to be done around the city, such as fixing broken water or sewer lines.” His job is fairly straightforward: Incoming wastewater flows to an aeration basin, clarifier and chlorine contact chamber, and out it goes.  

The Riggins wastewater plant is one of only a few facilities in the state that use biosolids drying beds. Perforated pipes at the bottom of a 12-inch sand bed drain filtrate; the process reduces water content by about 35 percent.

At the water plant in the center of town, Campbell does a daily log. He maintains water treatment equipment, adds chlorine and makes sure the plant meets permit requirements established by the DEQ.

For the long term

With Rookie of the Year awards under their belts, Pottenger and Campbell are pleased with their jobs and see water and wastewater as viable careers, especially as the “old guard” from the inception of the Clean Water Act of the 1970s begins to retire.

Says Pottenger, “I’m very happy here, and as long as I make a good living, learn things and get ahead, I consider this a worthwhile career. The demand for operators is really high because the older guys are retiring and things are getting much more technical.”

Campbell observes, “Most plants pay well, and there’s usually a lot of room for advancement. I believe one of our goals should be to start educating the high school students that there are opportunities in water and wastewater.”


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