Award-Winning Superintendent Does it For the Love of Wastewater

Education and training help award-winning superintendent Ed Bonham as he leads the water and wastewater team in Newton, Kansas.
Award-Winning Superintendent Does it For the Love of Wastewater
The plant operations team includes, from left, Justin Vajnar, utility supervisor; Nathan Phillips, maintenance worker; Bonham; and David Leiser, wastewater operator.

Ed Bonham basks in peace and calm as he cruises the county roads of Kansas on his 2010 Harley-Davidson Street Glide motorcycle, wind at his back.

But you can be sure he’s thinking about his job as superintendent of water and wastewater for the city of Newton, Kansas, and especially about his operators. “They inspire me,” says Bonham, 2015 winner of the William D. Hatfield Award from the Kansas Water Environment Association (KWEA). “When they’re out there at 3 in the morning in 25-degree weather repairing a main break, I realize they care as much as I care. They’ve pushed me up the ladder. I wouldn’t be in this position without them.”

Early inspiration

A high school shadowing program helped Bonham discover opportunity in water management, and surely is the reason he values education as much as he does today. “I was 18, with little interest in college and no interest at all in working at 7-Eleven the rest of my life,” he says.

His high school in McPherson, Kansas, offered tours of local businesses and organizations, and he chose to visit with the Public Works director, who he thought wouldn’t be doing too much. “He was also a friend of the family,” he says.

When he saw the scope of the work the director was responsible for, he was hooked. “I loved biology and working with my hands,” he remembers. “I started devouring everything I could find about getting into this field and talking to people in the industry.” After graduation, he was hired at the wastewater treatment plant he toured as an operator trainee.

That was 16 years ago; later he joined the design team at the wastewater plant in Rose Hill, Kansas, and became the town’s Public Works superintendent. Then he joined the Newton staff because it was a bigger challenge and closer to home.

Today, he supervises the Newton Water Division and wastewater collection and treatment; he also oversees the public wholesale water district. He and a team of 27 employees provide potable water to Newton’s 20,000 residents, and collect and treat 2 mgd of wastewater, discharged to Slate Creek. The treatment process is being upgraded to include biological nutrient removal and UV disinfection.

Rewarding degrees

While he didn’t plan on college as a teenager, Bonham went back to school during his working career, studying nights at Friends University to earn a bachelor’s degree in organizational management and a master’s degree in environmental science. At the time, he and wife Valerie were raising two children while working full time. “It was tough, but it was something I wanted to do for me,” Bonham says.

The hard work has paid off. Bonham says the college program improved his ability to manage people. He had some experience leading a team as a shift manager at a restaurant during high school. “But the degree taught me to understand people — what I was doing that was right and what that wasn’t. Understanding people is an art.”

The master’s degree taught him how to better comprehend research: “I wanted to learn more about the environmental side of things — biology and the science of discharging clean, safe water.” Having invested so much time in his own education, it’s not hard to see why Bonham is completely invested in the education and training of his staff.

“I’m a huge advocate of education,” he says. “In our field, I always encourage education, education, education. This is not a job. It’s a lifelong career. There’s something different every day. The way to learn and gain advanced understanding is through education.”

Training innovation

He has helped develop training programs for the KWEA and Kansas Municipal Utilities.  And he’s not satisfied with status-quo training programs. “People get tired of the same old thing, year after year, just coming in to earn credit for hours,” he says.

He’s part of a group that’s pushing for different approaches, like teaching long-term wastewater courses, having online meetings to help with homework questions, and having meetings at plants to help operators understand different options: “No two plants are the same. I like to use technology as much as possible to help attract and recruit the next generation of operators.” He puts his money where his mouth is: “When I came here, only four people had certification. Now, 26 are certified and the only who isn’t has been with us for six months.”

Training of newcomers and the younger staff members is critical as Bonham and Newton face a familiar prospect: retirement of the veterans on the team who will carry an abundance of know-how out the door. “Succession planning is probably my biggest challenge,” Bonham says. “In three to five years, a number of our key people will be eligible for retirement. They’ll take a lot of institutional knowledge with them. When they’re gone, they’re gone.”

While Bonham doesn’t have an organized program to capture those veterans’ experience, he does keep a notebook and fills it with information he gleans from them. “We also pair newcomers with veterans so they learn from the more experienced staff members. Our challenge is to grow people in the organization to step up and take on new positions.”

Bigger challenges

As he trains new staff, Bonham shouldn’t have any trouble motivating them about the importance of their work. Harking back to his high school interest in biology and mechanics, he talks about the challenges the clean-water profession faces today: “Infrastructure is a huge topic. The biggest asset a city owns gets the least amount of attention. Much of it is underground.

Sad to say, but it’s a case of out of sight, out of mind.”

He knows infrastructure has a direct impact on water quality. “It’s all tied together,” he says. “Pollution continues. As we look ahead, it’s hugely important that we adapt and work through these issues so we can still provide clean water for people to fill a glass and flush their toilets, and for firefighting.”

The challenges don’t get him down. While the Midwest has daunting water issues, he keeps an eye on what’s happening elsewhere. “When you read about drought in other parts of the country and water shortages out west, you realize that water is not an infinite resource. We need to treat it with kid gloves, understand its importance and make it available for our use.”

He doesn’t have all the answers to the critical questions, but based on his experience, he’s certain that the most pressing water issues will be solved in spite of the disparate interests in the environmental discussion: “We always come together. We always figure it out.”Well respected

Well respected

When you talk with those around him, it’s easy to see why Ed Bonham won the Kansas Water Environment Association’s William D. Hatfield Award.

“He’s a good leader, that’s for sure,” says Justin Vajnar, utility supervisor for water and wastewater at Newton, Kansas. “I’ve worked with him since he started here in 2010. It’s been a good experience. Whenever I have a question, he’s always ready to help. We can have a debate about something. He’s not an iron-fisted type of individual.”

Bonham’s leadership skills also impress Suzanne Loomis, city engineer and Public Works director: “He’s a super guy and great leader of his staff. He leads by example and never asks his staff to do something he wouldn’t do. He’s always looking for ways to improve the organization, and he gets results.”

Loomis notes that Bonham and the wastewater plant are in the middle of an expansion project, and the staff is being asked to work through the construction chaos. “Ed is out there on site, making sure we end up with a quality product,” she says. “I can’t say enough about him.”


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