Operations Supervisor Finds Himself Far From His Original Career Path

Eric Gonzales and his team run plants that produce water treated for specific purposes, from irrigation to groundwater recharge to boiler feed
Operations Supervisor Finds Himself Far From His Original Career Path
The West Basin Municipal Water District serves about one million people in a territory that spans 185 square miles.

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Eric Gonzales planned to follow in his father’s foot-steps and go to dental school. Instead, the clean water profession chose him.

A college major in biology and a minor in chemistry equip him well as operations supervisor with SUEZ North America at the West Basin Municipal Water District in Carson, California.
Since 2015, he has overseen the district’s three satellite plants: the Juanita Millender-McDonald Carson Regional Water Recycling Treatment Plant, the Chevron Nitrification Treatment Plant, and the Torrance Refinery Water Recycling Plant.

Gonzales finds it challenging to deal with reclaimed water as a feed source: “Incoming water quality changes quite frequently, and because of that, we are subjected to numerous operating challenges and process upsets. The plants were built in the 1990s, so it’s interesting to anticipate and react to the demands of running three facilities that are 20-plus years old.”

He excels at understanding each process, interpreting its effectiveness, and making appropriate changes. “I evaluate information from daily rounds and other recorded data and change chemical dosages or process flows accordingly,” he says. “The goal of data interpretation is to stay within contractual and environmental compliance and control chemical consumption costs.” His skill earned him a 2016 Outstanding Plant Operator Award from the Southwest Membrane Operator Association.

Designer water

The West Basin district provides drinking and recycled water to nearly a million people in a 185-square-mile area. It buys imported water from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and wholesales it to cities and private companies in southwest Los Angeles County. The water recycling program produces five types of “designer” water:

  • Tertiary water (Title 22) for industrial and irrigation uses
  • Nitrified water for industrial cooling towers
  • Secondary wastewater treated by microfiltration (MF), ultrafiltration (UF), reverse osmosis (RO), and UV and chlorine
  • disinfection, for groundwater recharge
  • Pure RO water for oil refinery low-pressure boiler feed
  • Ultrapure RO water for oil refinery high-pressure boiler feed

The Chevron Nitrification Treatment Plant in El Segundo receives 5 mgd of recycled water from the Edward C. Little Water Recycling Facility in El Segundo. All satellite plant feedwater comes from the Edward C. Little plant, where it is classified as Title 22 water.

This water has undergone media filtration and chlorine disinfection before it is used at the satellites or by municipal, commercial and industrial customers for irrigation and other applications. The Title 22 recycled water is further treated with four Biofor systems (Infilco Degremont, technology developed by SUEZ) to remove ammonia through nitrification for cooling tower applications.

The Juanita Millender-McDonald recycling plant in Carson treats 3.5 mgd of Title 22 recycled water. Equipment includes nine Memcor MF systems (Evoqua Water Technologies), four RO trains (Toray Membrane), one portable UF system (H2O Innovation; Toray modules) and one Biofor system. The treated water is sent to the Tesoro Refinery for boiler feed and cooling tower applications.

The Torrance Refinery plant removes ammonia through nitrification from over 6 mgd of recycled water. Equipment includes four Biofor systems, six Memcor MF systems, and four RO systems (Toray Membrane). The treated water is used in the facility’s cooling towers and for boiler feed.

Moving up

In running these facilities, Gonzales is a long way from his original career path. After graduating from Whittier College in 2007, he worked as a dental assistant to pay his student loans. He was laid off and ended up at The Home Depot.

“I was chatting with a customer one day, and when I told him I had a college degree, he asked if I had applied at the water company,” Gonzales says. “When I told him I had but never heard back, he suggested I send him my resume. It turned out he was maintenance manager at SUEZ, supporting West Basin. He helped me get my foot in the door.”

In 2009, Gonzales was hired as an operator in training at the 40 mgd Edward C. Little plant, the largest facility of its kind in the U.S. In six months, he had his Grade 2 certification, then received his Grade 3 and was promoted to Operator II. “At that point, I was also sometimes filling in as lead operator, but since there was no lead operator opening at the plant, the next step was to move to a satellite facility.”

The satellites are not manned 24 hours a day, but are remotely accessed from the Edward C. Little plant. “I saw it as a challenge because I would be at that facility by myself,” Gonzales says. “I started at the Chevron facility, then moved to Carson, where I trained my three direct reports. When I got my Grade 5 license, I was promoted to my current position.

“There were so many who contributed and continue to contribute to my knowledge, growth and career success. I was extremely green in the wastewater field when I came to work for SUEZ. My fellow operators, as well as our mechanics, electricians, engineers, lab techs and administrative staff, showed me the ropes.”

Bill Brooks, who was operations supervisor at the time, and Mark Mertes, lead operator on Gonzales’ shift, helped him a great deal: “They took the time to answer every question I asked and walked me through the different processes for real hands-on experience.”

The biggest challenge was learning about the MF systems. “MF membranes are the first step in the filtration process and are affected the most by harsh influent water quality,” Gonzales says. “Reviewing their performance, initiating the clean-in-place process and adjusting backwash intervals are essential steps.”

Leading by example

Today, Gonzales supervises three operators who handle the satellite facilities: Edgar Giron (Grade 2 water treatment, Chevron plant); Joshua Hoover (Carson plant); and Timothy Tyler (Torrance Refinery plant). Hoover and Tyler are Grade 3 wastewater treatment certified. Giron has been with the company for seven years, Tyler for over 20 years, and Hoover for four years.

Gonzales also evaluates system performance, schedules maintenance and coordinates chemical orders. It is a close-knit group. “Each satellite operator is responsible for their designated facility and cross-trained for the others,” Gonzales says. “The 16 shift operators at the Edward C. Little plant provide coverage at night and other times as needed. We all act as a team and respond as one, benefitting greatly from each other’s input and experience.”

Gonzales leads by example: “I don’t like to ask anyone to do something I wouldn’t do, and I try to be as understanding as possible. Everyone learns differently, and I like to help them learn in a way that is best for them.”

Making improvements

His biggest overall challenge is dealing with older equipment and working on facility upgrades. The MF systems are about 20 years old: valves, valve timing and backwash pressures have to be frequently monitored and adjusted. “At the Carson facility, we were using potable water to make up for the deficiency of the MF filtrate water,” he says. “In 2014, we installed new MF modules and a temporary portable trailer UF system that can process 1 mgd of our reclaimed water.” Other recent upgrades include:

  • Biological tower rehabilitation to as-new condition, including new media, at all satellite facilities (completed March 2016).
  • Alkalinity improvement at all satellite facilities (ongoing) to stabilize water quality by automating pH controls. It also includes a larger, permanent CO2 storage system.
  • RO module replacement at the Carson facility (2015-’16).

“Any construction or new work requires the necessary contractor safety training as well as ensuring their compliance to our standards,” Gonzales says. “During these projects, I have to coordinate between operations, maintenance and contractor work among all three satellite facilities.” His time is split between day-to-day operations, data review and interpretation, and contractor activities. He also coordinates with the district to schedule any necessary shutdowns or reductions.

His greatest operating challenge is dealing with high iron levels in the feedwater. “Iron is used as a coagulant by some of the treatment plants that send us secondary effluent,” he says. “Too much iron affects the performance of the MF and RO systems.” The satellite plant operators solve this with more frequent MF/UF/RO system cleanings, by adjusting chemical dosages and performing tests for fiber integrity. Fiber breakage in the MF/UF modules has occurred in the past when high iron levels enter the plants, and that can mean more solids loading to the RO systems.”

Company man

Although Gonzales didn’t plan on a career in water, he would do it all over again: “I love the people I work with and the daily challenges. It’s very hands-on, and I like working on the solution to a problem and seeing it through.”

Each day, he carefully studies current and historical data recorded from the operators’ daily rounds. He looks for anomalies, and tries to get the operators to do the same. The days can be long, since he’s on call 24/7. “I don’t have time for hobbies, but I do find time to spend with my wife of 17 years and our young son,” he says.

“I really love everything SUEZ has done for me and my family. I’ve just gained so much experience, I wouldn’t have been so successful otherwise.” He is especially grateful to his boss Bill Beam, chief plant operator: “He is my biggest mentor, and is responsible for my growth in my current role.”

As a next step, he looks toward a job with more responsibility at a bigger facility, or as a chief plant operator. “To me, success is not just financial, but is measured by the impact we leave on the environment, the facilities we’re in charge of, and our co-workers. As operators, we are helping to make the world more sustainable. It’s a badge of honor that we should wear proudly.”

Outstanding operator

Eric Gonzales was proud and a little embarrassed when he won the 2016 Outstanding Plant Operator Award from the Southwest Membrane Operator Association. “I do not like to have all the attention on me, but it feels great to be acknowledged,” he says.

He believes he was chosen for his quick grasp of complex membrane and nitrification processes and his ability to ask the right questions in solving problems. “As operators, we start out doing our rounds in the facility, and it seems mindless at times, but I realize that we are doing it for a reason. If we ask questions and understand why we do what we do, only then can we really understand the process and make changes accordingly.”

Gonzales describes his supervisor’s job as “interesting at times. During my first month, there was an explosion at the Torrance Refinery. I worked directly with our customers’ staff around the clock to help get their process back online.”

The upside? It didn’t damage any of the water treatment equipment. “Plus, I got to know a good portion of their operations staff quite well.”


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