The Race is On! Operations Challenge Sharpens Skills at Trinity River Authority

Trinity River Authority teams find the Operations Challenge sharpens workplace skills, builds strong teams and helps operators advance their careers.
The Race is On! Operations Challenge Sharpens Skills at Trinity River Authority
The TRA CReWSers team includes, from left, Dale Burrow, team captain; team members Jake Burwell, David Brown and Raudel Juarez; team coordinator Mike Young; and team coach Steve Price.n

Interested in Education/Training?

Get Education/Training articles, news and videos right in your inbox! Sign up now.

Education/Training + Get Alerts

Supporters whoop and holler as teams race through a safety rescue operation or repair a pump. The tension mounts as contestants check and recheck their numbers during the lab event, or pore over tough questions on process control.

But the value of the Operations Challenge competition, conducted every year by the Water Environment Federation with finals at WEFTEC, goes much deeper than the races against the clock in the arena on the exhibit floor.

Teamwork, pride in the profession, introduction to new technologies, discipline, humility, respect for others, networking — these are all benefits of competing in the Challenge. That’s the unanimous feeling of this year’s Division 1 champions, the TRA CReWSers from the Trinity River Authority in Dallas, Texas. That sentiment is shared by the Waste Warriors, TRA’s Division 2 entry, which won the lab competition at the national event and finished 13th overall.

“What I truly love about Operations Challenge is how the workforce gains more respect for other departments,” says John Bennett, manager of TRA’s Denton Creek Regional Wastewater System. “As a mechanic, I understand what my buddies in operations go through. I have more respect for them. It goes beyond the Challenge event.”

Adds David Brown, senior maintenance technician and a 15-year member of the CReWSers, “You gain knowledge, you move up to the highest level of licensing possible. That’s the story that’s repeated in the Operations Challenge program a multitude of times. The number of operators who move up to supervision and management from this program, it’s incredible.”

Successful run

The CReWSers, now five-time national champions, won their other titles in 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2009, representing TRA’s 162 mgd Central Regional Wastewater System Treatment Plant.

The team included, in addition to Brown:

  • Steve Price, chief operator for the liquids division, with 22 years on the Challenge team.
  • Raudel Juarez, chief maintenance mechanic, four years.
  • Dale Burrow, interceptor systems specialist, 22 years.
  • Jake Burwell, construction inspector II, 10 years.

The Waste Warriors competed for only the second year, representing TRA’s 11.5 mgd Denton Creek facility. Team members were Andrew Moore, senior operator; Clifford Woods, operator II; Andrew Esquibel, mechanic II; and Howard Williams, operator I.

For both teams, practice is what makes perfect, and management support is critical. “We’ve been together for a while,” says the CReWSers’ Burrow. “All team members have been the same for the last four years.” For that reason, the CReWSers’ practice schedule doesn’t ramp up until about a month before the competition.

“We practice a couple of hours, three days a week, but as the competition approaches, we’ll practice all day for about a week,” Burrow says. The team has a mock-up of all five event categories — safety, lab, process control, collections and maintenance — set up in the back of the plant to simulate the real thing.

For the Warriors, the practice schedule is more demanding, and not just because they’re newer to the competition. “At a smaller facility like ours, the challenges are unique,” says Bennett.

“Our team actually practices at the CReWSers’ facilities.”

That’s an hour drive, with traffic. “We have to practice before and after shifts,” says Bennett. “It takes a lot of coordination to do that. We’re really blessed that all 15 of our staff are really dedicated to the Challenge. They take a tremendous amount of pride in how the team does. From a management perspective, this is an excellent team-building activity. All the team members come together. It’s really exciting to see it happen.”

Brown adds, “We spend a lot of time on our own, maintaining our physical fitness and studying for the various tests. We couldn’t do this without great management support.”
Keys to victory

In the eyes of the TRA teams, experience counts heavily in a successful competition. “We have been working together so long, we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses,” says Burrow. “We can put the right person in the right spot for a particular event.”

Says Price, of the CReWSers, “Consistency definitely is a key, especially to stay competitive at the national level. Consistency is necessary both during practice and at the event itself. We spend a lot of time going over the rules, working on speed and accuracy. We’re always pushing to better our times.”

At the same time, teams need to be able to adapt to change. “The events change so often,” says Bennett. “The safety event is radically different now than it used to be.” Equipment and procedures change, and vendors bring in new technology, he notes, so teams need to keep up to date and up to new challenges, as the events change about every three years.

The ability to accept criticism is just as important.  “One of the things you learn right off the bat is to take constructive criticism,” points out Burrow. Members shouldn’t get upset when things are pointed out that need to be done better, to help the team overall, he notes.

Brown adds, “If you do mess up, you need to forget it and move on to the next event. It can seem simple, but if you have one little blip, it can throw everything off.” He recalls a time when his team recorded a slower time in pipe cutting because they weren’t familiar with the pipe material: “You need to get it out of your head and work through it.”

Finally, success calls for strong individual effort. “We study for the process control event all year long,” says Brown. “The amount of time spent individually is often overlooked. It ties in with how the team does. All eyes are on you. If you don’t bring it on game day, you’re dead in the water. The guys around you are there to help and support you. We back each other up.”
Friendships and networks

A key outcome of the Operations Challenge is the opportunity it gives participants to get to know other teams from around the country and network with them. “It’s great to get out there and meet teams from other states,” says Burrow. “It’s nice to talk with them. We’ve become very good friends. During the recent flooding in Texas, other teams offered to bring pumps down to us if we needed them. They had our back.”

Likewise, he says, when Hurricane Sandy tore up the East Coast a couple of years ago, his team touched base with teams they knew in that area, offered any help that might have been necessary, and made sure everybody was all right.

Whether on a winning team or not, participants in the Operations Challenge event have a special opportunity to learn what’s happening in the clean-water profession and transfer that know-how to their daily work. “A lot of things we do for Operations Challenge give us a better understanding of what we’re doing in our job,” says Moore, of the Waste Warriors.

Juarez, a four-year veteran of the competition, explains it this way: “When I got involved, it provided me with a window as to where the industry was going.” In particular, he says the process control tests introduced him to changes in technology that he hadn’t been exposed to: “It forces me to stay updated on technology. It’s helped me learn more than any class could ever teach me. I’m getting a lot of knowledge that’s useful in my daily routine.”

Burrow echoes that: “For safe entry, we’re seeing new gas detectors, new safety harnesses and new gantry tripods.” In collections, he says, the team got to see new autosamplers for the first time. “We get exposed to a lot of new equipment supplied by vendors, and we can take that experience into our own departments.”

Price adds, “It carries over into our day-to-day responsibilities. After doing this for so many years, it almost seems a mindset, trying to figure out more efficient ways of doing things.”

Texas Pride

Dale Burrow says one of the things he’s most proud of is that Texas is one of only four states that have won the Division 1 Operations Challenge competition since it was introduced in 1988.

The only other states that have had winning teams are California, Colorado and Virginia. In this year’s competition, 44 teams qualified for the national event, coming from the U.S., Canada, and, for the first time, Germany.

“The Ops Challenge makes me proud to represent Texas,” Burrow says. “We’re there to show folks what we do. As they watch and witness the test runs, they realize there’s more to it than they may have thought.”

The TRA CReWSers have every intention of winning it all again. The Waste Warriors just want to keep on getting better and “take something that we learned home with us,” says team member Andrew Moore.

What’s It All About?

The Operations Challenge is one of the most popular events at the annual WEFTEC conference. It’s a chance for wastewater collections and treatment personnel to demonstrate, before cheering audiences, their skills dealing with flooding, workplace accidents, process problems and other emergency situations.

Each team is sponsored by a Water Environment Federation Member Association or recognized Operator Association. In many cases, state and regional competitions determine which teams will compete in the national Challenge at WEFTEC.

Winners are determined by a weighted point system for five events: collections systems, laboratory, process control, maintenance and safety. To find out more about the Operations Challenge, send an email to


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.