Notes From a Field Trip to the Wisconsin Operators Conference

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I really should do this more often. Last May, I attended the Southeast Region Meeting of the Wisconsin Wastewater Operators Association, hosted by Plymouth Utilities.

I talk to operators on the phone, I tour clean-water plants now and then, and I attend national trade shows like WEFTEC and ACE. But to really see how the industry works, you need to get to the regional, state and local conferences put on by operators themselves, usually with a little help from equipment manufacturers.

Mike Penkwitz, wastewater superintendent, invited me to the meeting as a speaker. I gave my “Fire Chief Project” presentation, which advocates raising clean-water operators to the status of the fire chief, and making kids grow up wanting to be clean-water operators. Everett Russell of Dorner Valves and Automation followed my talk with highly practical advice on valve identification and maintenance.

In the morning session, Ralph “Rusty” Schroedel, P.E., of the AECOM engineering firm, talked about the change in the industry’s focus from treatment and disposal to resource recovery.

His observations on new nutrient removal approaches were especially interesting — watch for more on that topic on these pages in the future.

John Nelson of The Nature Conservancy described how to look to farms upstream for phosphorus reduction, as at least a partial alternative to plant upgrades. And Fred Hegeman of the Wisconsin DNR walked the group through the calculations for determining how much biosolids to apply to farmland based on crop nutrient needs.

I learned a lot from the presentations. I also made a few general observations that are worth remembering, for me and maybe in some cases for the operator community:

  • Nice recognition. Giving a welcome to the conference, Brian Yerges, Plymouth city administrator, played a short video promoting the city. It didn’t show or mention the wastewater treatment plant. I imagine very few city videos do so. The reason is obvious, I suppose. I must say, however, that the mere fact Yerges was there indicates that he and city leadership respect and value the role of the treatment plant and the operations team.
  • Still gray. Early in my presentation, I asked for a show of hands from those under age 40 in attendance. You can imagine that very few hands went up. You could almost hear a sigh of recognition from the large majority north of 40.
  • Gender gap. I didn’t have to ask for a show of hands from women. They were also clearly a minority. In that perhaps lies opportunity — a potential source of new operators and new perspectives for the industry.
  • Love those tours. After the session, Penkwitz offered a tour of the Plymouth plant. Most of the attendees made the roughly 1 1/2-mile trip from the downtown restaurant meeting site to the plant, which discharges to the Mullet River. It was an unguided tour — operators know what they’re looking at and what might interest them. One item of interest was the plant’s energy system with Capstone microturbine cogeneration.
  • It’s a community. It was clear from the warm welcomes that many of these folks, including the vendors, have been friends for quite a while. It was also obvious that they are still very much engaged as professionals. You could tell from the long question/answer sessions after most presentations that these operators were not just there to take up space and earn continuing education credits.

It was a day well spent, even apart from being asked to autograph a copy of TPO magazine and a TPO T-shirt (trust me when I say that is a rare event indeed). The day reinforced my respect for the industry and the people in it. I hope I can do it again, somewhere, next year.


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