Multi-Tasking Operator Builds Award-Winning Career

Dustan Russum built an award-winning career as ‘one-person DPW,’ managing water and multiple public works jobs in tiny Frederica, Delaware.
Multi-Tasking Operator Builds Award-Winning Career
Dustan Russum helped Frederica avoid a major expenditure by finding a fix for a water tower that had been slated nfor replacement.n

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What do you do when you need your town’s water well up and running? How do you get an old municipal building floor torn up? Who can spell the mayor when he wants to take a break? In Frederica, Delaware, it’s a no-brainer: Ask Dustan Russum.

Nominally, Russum serves as public works water operator for this town of 812 near the Murderkill River in eastern Delaware. In reality, he’s much more. Since he joined the Frederica Water Department in 2014, Russum has brought creative, money-saving ideas, strong technical skills and a “gimme-what-you-got” commitment to the position.

Saluted for skills

Russum, a native of nearby Harrington, a city of 3,700 that hosts the Delaware State Fair, has accomplished a great deal in a relatively short time. His accomplishments include helping Frederica earn a Best-Tasting Water Award from the Delaware Rural Water Association (DRWA) and being named that association’s 2014 Water Professional of the Year.

Russum was honored for bringing the water system into EPA compliance, installing the town’s fluoride system and for fixing a well that has substantially improved fire protection and water service for the east side of the community. Moreover, he saved Frederica millions of dollars by using old parts and borrowing others to repair water equipment, and by applying his more than 14 years of water experience to rebuild chemical (chlorine) pumps rather than buy new ones.

“I was surprised and happy when I won,” says Russum. “2014 was a good year for me. I had been here only a few months and we won the best-tasting water competition. Then a short time later I got the Water Professional of the Year award. There were eight or nine operators nominated, so I was very pleased to be recognized.”

Loving the work

Russum’s interest in providing safe, clean drinking water began soon after he graduated in 1998 from Lake Forest High School in Felton, Delaware. In 2000, he joined the City of Milford Sanitation and Street Department. A short while later he learned that the Town of Milton was hiring for a water department position as an equipment operator. After he got the job, the town sent him to an 18-week water operator course at Delaware Technical Community College to get his Grade 1 water operator certification.

He stayed in Milford for about five years before moving to Milton, about 38 miles south of Dover, the state capital. He spent eight years in Milton, becoming water supervisor in 2005 and director of Public Works in 2010. Living 10 minutes away, he knew Frederica well. In fact, he did a water meter upgrade for the town in 2013, got to know the water operator, and even volunteered to help out if he got sick. That operator started his own business and left, creating an opening that Russum filled in March 2014.

“I really love this job,” says Russum. “Frederica is a great place to work. Everybody here is family-oriented, so if I have a family problem, they tell me to take care of that first. The people here always stand behind you, and they want you to succeed.”

Pump redundancy

Succeed is what Russum has done almost from the day he started. Early on, he discovered a 550 gpm well house that had been sitting idle for nearly 10 years and asked, “Why don’t we use it?” Fiscally cautious town officials wanted to know what it would cost to get it back online. Russum responded by researching the issue, fixing parts and updating controls.

Result: For less than $10,000, he got the abandoned well house up and running and supporting the town’s 750 gpm well.

Today, Russum operates the two wells that average 70,000 gpd between them and service 380 to 400 homes, drawing water from the Frederica Aquifer and treating it with fluoride and chlorine. The pumps are electronically linked. One well comes on, and the next time water is needed, the other well kicks in. If there is a serious drop in water pressure and one well can’t keep levels up, the second one takes up the slack.

Town officials appreciate Russum’s contributions and ability to get the job done on a $100,000 annual budget. Mayor Chick Glanden, for one, considers Russum a real asset, citing his creativity, commitment to saving money and willingness to pitch in.

“Dustan goes above and beyond the call; he does a little bit of everything for us and has saved us a ton,” says Glanden. “He went over to an old building here and busted up the floor so we could pour a new one. Any leaks that come up in town, he’ll fix himself, and if he can’t he’ll get a contractor. He’s a one-person Public Works Department who does it all — from changing lightbulbs in Town Hall to sitting at the desk if I want to take a quick break.”

Another booster is Pete Rager, a town council member who is getting involved in repairing equipment, doing water cutoffs (for non-payment of bills) and handling other projects.

“Dustan is a hard worker who treats the town’s money like it’s his own,” says Rager.

“Instead of going to a catalogue and buying the newest and greatest equipment, he’ll say, ‘Maybe we can make this work.’ Everyone on the council agrees that Dustan is working out well for us. He’s been in the water business so long that he has a lot of resources we can use. Not only can he do it all, but he’s also been good at teaching me how things work, so I can step in and help when the need arises.”

Innovation and savings

  • Other examples of Russum’s ingenuity include:
  • Rebuilding water treatment chemical pumps.
  • Using all his resourcefulness to learn about and replace a 20-year-old rusted-out well pump that failed. This required much online research and numerous phone calls to pump suppliers and finally to a well driller, who pulled the pump so Russum could put in a new one.
  • Installing an automatic flushing station (Kupferle) designed to improve and maintain chlorine residuals and flush disinfectant byproducts (DBPs). The unit runs water every morning for about two hours so the lines stay clear.

For Russum, it’s all part of the job. He typically works 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., starting by inspecting the wells and checking the readings to make sure the water meets regulatory requirements. He’s on call 24/7 every day. If that isn’t enough, in his free time he works with his wife, Shelly, and other family members on his family’s 50-acre farm, growing hay and vegetables sold at co-ops and farmers markets.

“Water is definitely a good career with a lot of opportunities,” Russum says. “When I go to classes and seminars and I look around the room, many of the operators in this area are in the 55- to 60-year-old range. They’ll be retiring pretty soon, and someone has to fill their shoes. Also, every day is an adventure. There’s always something new going on. No two days are alike. What works today might not work tomorrow, so you always have to find a solution.”


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