Why Retirement Didn’t Work for This Operator

Operator Jerry Nicholson applies long experience, skills and wisdom to job; winning praise, award and respect at Boulder’s Betasso Water Treatment Plant.
Why Retirement Didn’t Work for This Operator
Jerry Nicholson

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With 36 years in water treatment, Jerry Nicholson could have called it a career a decade ago. Fat chance. He’s committed to the industry and to providing safe, clean drinking water for the people of Boulder, Colorado, where he’s the go-to guy at the Betasso Water Treatment facility.

Nicholson has spent his professional life learning water technology, building cohesive teams and doing whatever it takes to keep water flowing. His dedication paid off in September 2015 when he received the Ralph M. Leidholdt Plant Operator Award from the Rocky Mountain Section of the American Water Works Association and the Rocky Mountain Water Environment Association.

“Jerry is keen on every aspect of treatment plant operation, leaving nothing in doubt,” says Tom Settle, manager of the Betasso plant, who nominated Nicholson for the award. “Jerry allows no moss to grow under his feet. He is on the move his entire shift, checking equipment, finding obscure problems before they become big ones, bringing them to the attention of management and volunteering to implement the solution. At times, he can be a one-man water plant staff.”

Nicholson says he was surprised at the award: “I didn’t realize anyone had nominated me. I tell people I won because of being in the field for 36 years, I’ve stood in line longer than anyone else.”

Stable career

That line began in March 1980, when he started as a water operator trainee for the City of Longmont, a community of 86,000 about 12 miles northeast of Boulder. Nicholson and his five siblings grew up in Longmont, where he still lives, and graduated from Longmont High School. He attended the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley and majored in business, but didn’t graduate, preferring to work. After spending time in construction and other jobs, he wanted something more permanent.

“What interested me about water treatment was the stability of getting a job where there was a real need,” he explains. “With water, there isn’t much fluctuation based on the economy, so you’re almost always needed. Apart from the stability, something is always changing, whether it’s new treatment processes or regulations. Also, it typically isn’t hard physical labor, so you can do it over the long haul.”

After five years as an operator, Nicholson became plant supervisor, and in 1986 he rose to plant superintendent. He held that post until October 2004, when he retired. After taking off several months and managing construction crews, he decided retirement wasn’t for him. In May 2005, he went to work for Boulder (population 100,000) as an operator at the Betasso plant.

“I came back as an operator because I always liked operations and I didn’t want to supervise again,” says Nicholson. In addition to holding a Class A Water Operator license, he is certified in hydroelectric operations because Boulder has nine hydroelectric power plants installed on water supply pipelines above and below the Betasso plant.

“Being a superintendent and having run three water plants, I’ve dealt with plenty of personnel and administrative issues,” says Nicholson. “That provides a different perspective. I look at things a bit differently than the other operators because I’ve experienced both sides — management and staff.”

Busy work days

Boulder has two water plants: the 40 mgd Betasso plant and the 20 mgd Boulder Reservoir Water Treatment Plant, also called the 63rd Street plant. Together, the plants employ 14 operators, four maintenance workers, three supervisors, two electronics technicians (instrumentation and control) and one SCADA administrator.

Situated in the Rocky Mountain foothills west of Boulder, Betasso is the city’s primary water treatment plant; it is a conventional treatment facility. The 63rd Street plant employs a dissolved air flotation (DAF) process in which solids float to the surface, rather than settling to the bottom of a tank. Boulder operators get hands-on training so that they can work both processes.

On his 12-hour rotating shift starting at 5:30 a.m., Nicholson and his shift partner, operator Randy Bass, exchange information with the night operator before getting to work. One runs the treatment plant while the other handles the distribution system and the hydroelectric stations.

At about 6 a.m., the plant operator does calibrations with the equipment. At 7 o’clock, he runs a complete set of lab tests to evaluate the raw water coming in from the mountain-based Barker reservoir or the Silver Lake Watershed near the Continental Divide. He also monitors the treatment process to make sure the proper amounts of chemicals (coagulants, chloride and fluoride) are added to the water. Then he tests the finished water to ensure that it meets state standards.

For the distribution system, the operator goes through the SCADA screens and checks the hydroelectric stations to see that the proper amount of water is going through them, looks at electric output, checks the generator bearing temperatures and diagnoses any issues. He also determines how much water is in storage; Boulder’s target is to have 28 million gallons on hand. All of this requires extensive experience, considerable knowledge and an unflappable demeanor, all of which typify Nicholson.

“Jerry is a good guy to work with,” says Bass, his carpooling partner and a 14-year plant veteran. “He’s hardworking and very dedicated to the plant and to providing clean water. If he sees something that needs to be done, whether it’s maintenance or a treatment issue, he’ll jump on it.”

Breaking barriers

Matt Swadener, a chief operator at the Betasso plant for the last 14 years, calls Nicholson “a true professional and forward-thinking operator. Jerry’s expertise is vast, and he’s a conscientious individual who constantly tries to break down barriers between maintenance and operations so everybody is on the same page in terms of supporting our facility.”

Such strong interpersonal skills aren’t surprising, since Nicholson has done a lot of team building, especially during his time as supervisor at Longmont. There, he regularly communicated with both disciplines to promote a team atmosphere. That meant assigning operators to work with maintenance staff and vice versa.

“When you work as an operator, you go into the lab and run tests, look at the monitoring systems and such,” Nicholson says. “But there’s a lot more to a plant. I always found it a lot better if you could get operators doing maintenance and diagnosing equipment problems before those things negatively affected plant processes.”

Settle praises Nicholson for his diligence and his willingness to watch all aspects of plant operations, constantly looking for opportunities to improve the facility. “There is no more selfless team player than Jerry,” says Settle. “He quickly volunteers to assist anyone that needs a helping hand, regardless of how nasty or dirty the job may be. Jerry is good at teaching, which comes from his background and length of experience both here and his previous career at the City of Longmont. He’s been helpful to me and good at sharing his knowledge with new people and getting them up to speed on processes.”

All about the water

Nicholson takes such compliments in stride. A self-described “outdoor guy,” he likes to backpack into Colorado’s high-lakes wilderness area (above 12,000 feet) to fly fish and hunt. He tries to eat only wild meat — deer, antelope, moose and elk. And he keeps in close contact with his daughter, who lives in Colorado Springs, and a son and fellow hunter who lives in Littleton.

Yet water treatment remains uppermost in his mind. It’s what brought him out of retirement and what motivates him to get up at the crack of dawn and drive to work, even braving washed-out roads during the 2013 flooding. “What I like about this job is that I get to provide clean water for the residents here,” says Nicholson. “A water plant operator is expected to be perfect all the time, and if you make a mistake and the water isn’t treated properly, you can impact the entire community.

“Think about it: If a doctor messes up, it typically affects only one person, but we can affect the health of everybody if we don’t do our job correctly. I enjoy what I’m doing and I’m excited about the capital improvement project we’re about to undertake. I’m going to work until I get bored or get tired.”

A test of mettle

Jerry Nicholson and the other operators at the Betasso Water Treatment Plant will have their skills and patience tested by a major renovation project. Built in 1963 and upgraded to double capacity in 1972, the plant will see a complete rehabilitation of its water treatment processes.

“This will be a huge undertaking for us and we’ll need everyone at the top of their game,” says Tom Settle, plant manager, who has been reviewing plans almost since he came aboard in 2013. “Because Jerry is so proactive and good at spotting and diagnosing problems, he’ll be a great help.” Key elements of the 27-month project will include:

  • Installing plate settlers (Meurer Research) to enhance sedimentation. As flow travels up the stainless steel plates, solids settle out onto the plate surface. The clarified water is evenly extracted through the flow control deck and distributed into troughs, where it flows out of the sedimentation basin.
  • Downsizing the sedimentation basins from four to two while keeping flow levels unchanged, as a result of the new plate settlers.
  • Redoing all mixed-media filters, which have been in place since the early 1990s.
  • Installing new surface washers.
  • Adding a sludge processing system to dewater treatment residuals.
  • Replacing valves and other equipment.

At present, the Betasso plant uses Leopold filters (Xylem), which are an older design, but provide high treatment flexibility. Some of the filters have been reconfigured for better particulate removal. The plant gets high marks; it has excellent source water with low turbidity. Raw water has turbidity of less than 1 NTU; finished water turbidity runs about 0.03 to 0.04 NTU.

“Once the project is completed, we’ll be able to run water more efficiently, and that will help accommodate future growth,” says Nicholson. “And we’ll be able to connect to a sanitary sewer system, which we don’t have now because of our high elevation. Despite the size and complexity of the project, we’re committed to producing the water the Boulder area needs without a hitch.”


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