Geneseo Top Operator Embraces Small Town Experience

Senior operator Steve McTarnaghan came to the industry late but found a great outlet for his planning, mechanical and people skills.

Geneseo Top Operator Embraces Small Town Experience
Steve McTarnaghan (left) with Jason Frazier, Public Works superintendent, check on a job involving a possible burst pipe.

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Steve McTarnaghan learned valuable skills at 16 while working for his father in the excavation business. His grandfather and father-in-law were also mentors, from whom he learned the value of hard work.

He also picked up drywall, carpentry and electrical skills that have come in handy during his 33 years with the Geneseo Village Water and Sewage Treatment Plants in Geneseo, New York.

McTarnaghan started at Geneseo in 1982 as an operator trainee and worked his way up through the ranks. Today, as senior water and wastewater treatment operator, he applies his management, budgeting and planning skills in successfully serving 18,000 customers in five towns.

His accomplishments include a water tank project that improved water quality and flow to residents outside the village, and new water and sewer lines that improved quality and flow while reducing infiltration. A master meter installation project reduced water loss by 23 percent, and an upgrade to the wastewater plant’s nine biosolids drying beds significantly reduced drying and cleaning time.

By doing much of the work in-house, the operations team has saved the village thousands of dollars per year. They also produce a high-quality product: 0.1 NTU average turbidity of finished drinking water, and a 95 percent removal rate for BOD and TSS at the wastewater plant.

For his efforts, McTarnaghan earned the 2014 Uhl T. Mann Award for Excellence in wastewater treatment operations and maintenance from the New York Water Environment Association (NYWEA) among plants with capacities from 1.1 to 10 mgd.

Running two plants

The 1.5 mgd trickling filter wastewater plant was built in 1958 and upgraded in 1972 and 2003-05. The new equipment includes:

  • Influent building with an Auger Monster and Muffin Monster (JWC Environmental) and PISTA grit chamber (Smith & Loveless)
  • Weirs and paddles in all four clarifiers
  • Recirculation tanks to help enable adequate flow to the trickling filters
  • Distribution arms and plastic media in the trickling filters
  • Recirculation pumps (Gorman-Rupp)
  • Fiberglass covers and a new mixing system and pump for the digesters
  • New spiral heat exchanger for digester heating

Other plant equipment includes a rotary arm distributor system (WesTech Engineering), WEMCO supernatant pumps (Weir Specialty Pumps) and sludge pumps (Carter Pump).

The 3.0 mgd conventional water plant has been upgraded several times, most recently in 2014. New equipment includes the computer system, effluent flowmeter, mixing system in the 3-million-gallon storage tank, a distribution line from the tank, several miles of new water main, and master meters in new locations. Other equipment includes effluent and low-service pumps (Peerless Pump Company), chemical feed pumps (Grundfos Pumps and ProMinent Fluid Controls) and Trident MicroFloc filters (WesTech Engineering).

A staff of five operates and maintains both plants. Besides managing day-to-day operations, McTarnaghan oversees major infrastructure projects and spot machine and pipe repairs. Initially trained in water treatment, he cross-trained in wastewater treatment when the water and sewer departments merged in 1987.

He took water and wastewater treatment classes at Buffalo State College and wastewater classes at State College of New York at Morrisville. He also completed correspondence courses from California State University and Michigan State University. At Geneseo, he received hands-on training in water operations from Don Jerals, water plant foreman, and in wastewater operations from Tom Linsner, wastewater plant foreman, and Charlie Parent, senior water and wastewater operator.

Much better job

Water treatment was not McTarnaghan’s first career choice. He attended Monroe Community College in Rochester as a criminal justice major. He then worked as a supermarket stock clerk, in shipping/receiving at a local manufacturer, and as manager of automotive service stations in Geneseo.

He knew people at the Geneseo Department of Public Works, saw potential for a good career path, and so applied for a job. “It has been a much better job than I ever expected, because it allows me to use my planning and mechanical skills,” he says. “I really enjoy planning for the future success of operations. That includes budget, staffing, equipment functionality, water quality and preparing to meet future demands on our system. I have the authority to decide what projects should be done, but I also believe in doing them as soon as possible and not waiting for a crisis situation.”

Least enjoyable is finding money for necessary projects. These are funded by water and wastewater revenue, but because the water rates in Geneseo are 65 percent lower than in other area municipalities, there is limited room for improvements and required maintenance.

McTarnaghan offers high praise for his staff: “They do everything at the plants, from putting vinyl siding on the garage and sealing blacktop, to sealing fiberglass digester covers and patching holes around the drying beds.”

The team includes those with heavy-equipment operation, gas pipeline installation, and electrical and carpentry skills. “We do all our own motor repair and laying new waterlines,” says McTarnaghan. “We even do tree removal.” Besides McTarnaghan (Grade 2A, C, D water, Grade 3 wastewater certification), the team includes:

  • Foreman Dan Quinlan (Grade 2A, D water, Grade 3 wastewater, 24 years at Geneseo)
  • Operator Matt McTarnaghan (Grade 2A, D water, Grade 2 wastewater, eight years)
  • Operator trainee Chris Dermody (one year)
  • Maintenance employee Steve McLean (Grade 2A water, Grade 1 wastewater, 26 years)

Says McTarnaghan, “They have the knowledge and ability to run both plants smoothly. They answer emergency calls quickly and solve problems on their own with little or no additional assistance. Customer service is their top priority.”

Many improvements

Over the years, McTarnaghan and his team have launched and completed many improvement projects. In 2013, they designed and installed the new mixing system for the 3-million-gallon water tank and installed the new distribution line from the tank. The $225,000 project reconfigured the tank’s intake and outlet piping to solve a stagnant water problem. Hazardous chemical residues would build up in the tank, requiring frequent flushing. The improvements were designed to allow water to flow through the tank and constantly renew itself.

The tank was removed from service for more than a month while improvements were made. To maintain water service, the plant had to match what it was pumping to what the towns were drawing and what the village was using.

“We had two 8,000-gallon portable pressure tanks parked at the water tank, which equals about 15 minutes of storage,” recalls McTarnaghan. “That was the only storage we had. We also had eight pressure-relief valves on hydrants, which needed to be constantly trickling water so we would be sure there was water everywhere in our system.” As long as they knew when each town was going to pump, they could increase the flow leaving the plant. Meeting demand meant coordinating with the towns and staffing the water plant around the clock.

Another project improved the biosolids drying beds. “We had been using sand drying, but we blacktopped three of our nine beds after visiting a plant that was successfully using this method,” McTarnaghan says. “It has worked out wonderfully.” Instead of three men working three hours to shovel each bed, the cleaning process was reduced to one man working an hour with a small tractor. A roof over the beds keeps them dry, while clear panels on one side of the roof allow sunlight to speed up the drying process. Drying time has been reduced from up to five weeks to about two weeks.

Leading by example

McTarnaghan prefers water to wastewater treatment: “It’s more challenging. The source water changes daily, and you have to know your plant down to the smallest degree to properly and consistently produce quality water.” His trained ears tell him when equipment needs service. “You need to know what each piece of equipment’s noise means so that you can hear when there is a potential problem,” he says.

As a manager, he sets a positive example. “I started as low man, always being the first one in the ditch,” he says. “Today, I don’t hesitate to be one of the guys in the ditch. When we’re sealing digester covers in the sun and it’s 90 degrees with no breeze, I’m right there beside my team.”

Although it’s not officially part of his job, he still walks house to house and reads water meters: “I repair and replace meters at the same quota as my team members. I believe work should be shared equally regardless of title or seniority.”

McTarnaghan’s track record in planning and execution is the reason he won the Uhl T. Mann Award. “I think I was nominated because several people on the NYWEA Genesee Valley Chapter Board of Directors know me and the plant and know what my team has been doing to improve our system’s operations,” he says. “Sometimes we can’t get it all done in a normal workday, but the staff has no problem working overtime.”

Hometown feel

As for water distribution and wastewater collection infrastructure, much of the village’s oldest piping has been replaced. On the water side, that has reduced winter breakage and leaks, but there is still more to do. “Around 8,000 feet of waterline and 8,000 feet of sewer line will need to be replaced in the near future,” McTarnaghan says. “Some is bad pipe and some is too small to meet demand.”

During flow and smoke testing of the sewer system to check for infiltration, the team found many trouble spots: “We’ve fixed the easy stuff first, and now we are replacing lines.” Funding will continue to be a challenge.

“Our Village Board is very responsive, but sometimes it’s hard to get them to grasp the situation, like a pipe in the ground that they can’t see,” McTarnaghan says. He did secure funding for a sewer line project on Main Street in which the new sewer line was to be routed through residents’ backyards and then connected to a mainline through a side yard. “I went house to house and was able to get easements for every line,” says McTarnaghan. “My relationships with the people helped. One guy talked to his neighbors and said, ‘You can trust Steve. If he tells you this, this and this, it will happen just that way.’”

This trust comes from years of exceptional customer service. A March 2015 letter to the editor in the Livingston News voiced appreciation for the job McTarnaghan’s team does every day. It came from a customer who awoke one cold morning to discover that she had no running water. She told how the village crew worked tirelessly in subfreezing temperatures with no lunch break to restore her water. Her letter ends with praise for the “kind, considerate and dedicated men” who deserve the respect of the citizens of Geneseo.

Based on his own experience, McTarnaghan offers advice to those interested water careers: “Take the test! Don’t hesitate to explore your opportunities for a municipal job. Working at a small plant has a great hometown feel. You have the chance to meet a lot of residents, and there is a great deal of satisfaction and pride in what you can accomplish. Kids don’t dream of growing up to be a treatment plant operator. But what it lacks in glamour it makes up for in importance. This is a vital service to our society both now and in the future.”

A sporting life

Steve McTarnaghan has always been a good organizer. That has served him well in planning numerous community sporting events and has been key to his success at the Geneseo Village Water and Sewage Treatment Plants.

As a child living on Conesus Lake in Groveland, New York, McTarnaghan organized community softball games. “I had to gain the participation of kids who lived by the lake 3 miles away and also secure a field to play in,” he says.

For 23 years, he played in a men’s and co-ed softball league and a tournament softball team, which often made it to the finals. “I grew up around the game,” he says. “My dad played fast-pitch softball and pitched four scoreless innings when he was in his 50s, against the world famous The King and His Court team. He was also inducted into the International Bowlers Museum and Hall of Fame in St. Louis.”

Besides taking after his father in softball and bowling, McTarnaghan was an avid hunter and water and snow skier. Although he no longer plays softball, he still enjoys bowling and golf. For the past eight years he has organized a yearly golf trip for friends. “I take care of the whole thing; all the golfers need to do is show up and get on the plane.”


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