Chris Patterson Leads by Serving. It's His Ticket to a Successful Water and Wastewater Career

Focus on faith, family, and community helps Chris Patterson build an award-winning career managing water, wastewater, and operations in Jacksonville, Alabama.

Chris Patterson Leads by Serving. It's His Ticket to a Successful Water and Wastewater Career

The Jacksonville team includes, from left, Chuck Simmons and Bobby Hunt, operators; Chris Patterson, manager; Roger Mills, chief operator; and Jacob Cadle, operator.

Chris Patterson is right where he’s meant to be: gas, water and wastewater manager for the city of Jacksonville, Alabama.

His job is to ensure only the best service for his quiet community of 12,500, about an hour and a half east of Birmingham and home to Jacksonville State University. A 42-year-old father of three, Patterson has brought a “servant’s heart” to the job for the last 21 years, learning the business, expanding his skills and mentoring others.

His story is truly inspirational. He graduated from Jacksonville High School not knowing what he wanted to do, got hired as a summer laborer at the gas and water utility, and over time fell in love with the profession. His job includes providing clean drinking water and returning treated wastewater to Little Tallahatchee Creek, a tributary of the 280-mile-long Coosa River.

A great field

“When I came on full time, I still wasn’t all that interested in water and wastewater,” Patterson says in a soft southern drawl. “Then one day I said to myself, ‘This is a path.’ Once you get past the persona of wastewater, it’s a fascinating field. As I’ve said many times, I didn’t choose this career; this career chose me. I love what I do.”

A Jacksonville native, Patterson has made community service a hallmark of his work for the Water Works, Gas & Sewer Department. Along the way, he has earned kudos from his boss, employees and fellow operators around the state. He was named 2017 Water Operator of the Year by the Alabama Rural Water Association and earned his city’s Employee of the Month honors in June of last year.

The Alabama Rural Water Association award announcement cited Patterson for implementing new ideas and operational methods to help the system, for always putting the customer first, and for his tireless work ethic and devotion to duty. For example, in 2010 after the rupture of a fluoride tank beside a spring that feeds the water system, he spent 36 hours working nonstop, fixing the leak and flushing the system until the fluoride level returned to normal. Strictly routine, Patterson claims, steadfastly shunning any and all praise.

“I was surprised to win the Operator of the Year award,” says Patterson, who holds a Grade IV wastewater certification and Grade III water certification. “I’m not out there trying to win awards. This field is all about helping people and serving the community. That’s what we all do.”

Prayerful decision

In 2005, Patterson’s hard work and diligence paid off when he was named the city’s chief water operator. A few years later he became water/wastewater plant manager. Then in November 2017 he was promoted to utility system management, adding supervision and administrative work to his gas, water and sewer responsibilities.

Patterson now maintains 80 miles of water main and six water tanks, 50 miles of sewer main with six lift stations, and 30 miles of gas main with a 16-member team. He is also in charge of the city’s Grade II Germania Springs and Big Springs water plants, which have a combined average flow of 1.5 mgd and are known for outstanding water quality.

On the wastewater side, Patterson manages Jacksonville’s 3.5 mgd (design) activated sludge treatment plant, which is undergoing a $10.8 million renovation. It’s a big job that he did considerable soul-searching before taking on.

“I seriously questioned whether management was right for me,” Patterson says. “I even prayed about it. When I got my answer, it was this: More than water and wastewater, I want to help the people I supervise, and this job will allow me to be a positive force in their lives. Being a manager isn’t about bossing people; it’s about helping them reach their potential and be successful. I think of it as being a servant.”

High energy

Such a mindset serves Patterson well. He gets in at 6 a.m., never really clocks out, and is always on call. Usually he first meets with the operators at the wastewater plant and then the water plants to make sure everything for the day is charted and online. The seven wastewater and water operators run wastewater labs three days a week. They check chlorine and fluoride levels at the water plants daily and make sure pumps are operating as they should to ensure adequate water pressure.

Patterson then meets with the water distribution supervisors to ensure that all fieldwork is being done as efficiently as possible. In all meetings, he communicates what needs to be done, with special focus on “Do your best, one day at a time.” More than a motto, those words describe Patterson’s outlook and define how he handles the job and everyone he deals with.

One thing that has helped a lot is Patterson’s 2016 upgrade of the city’s geographic information system. Before the new GIS came online, department members had to go through city engineers to upgrade paper maps. Today, Jacksonville has a greatly improved mapping system and a network that operators can use on their tablets to pull up information anytime. Team members can quickly locate problems like broken valves and cracked pipes, fix them, and enter the result into the database immediately.

“The operators are involved in maintaining the GIS network,” Patterson says. “That gives them a larger purpose. They know what’s wrong on a map — maybe it’s the size of the line — and they can fix it right away because they have this new tool. For us, it means we can leave the job better than when we started, which is what we all want.”

Heaps of praise

Among Patterson’s biggest fans is his boss, Johnny Smith, Jacksonville’s four-term mayor, with whom he has a mutual admiration society. Patterson calls Smith “a good guy to work for and one of the main reasons I’m where I’m at today. When I think about a leader, I think about him. He trusts me, and I take that trust very seriously.”

Now in his 13th year as mayor of a growing city whose population has climbed 69 percent since 2000, Smith calls Patterson “a great person to have as an employee. You can give him an assignment and not worry that it won’t get done. He’s so reliable.

“Chris is a hands-on person who loves to go into the field and work with the operators, whether it’s at the water and wastewater plants or fixing a broken water main. The operators like and respect him because he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty. He’ll do whatever it takes to get the job done right.”

Operators are equally enthusiastic. Roger Mills, lead wastewater operator since 2017, has worked with Patterson for more than 14 years and finds him to be “both a good person and a good boss. He cares about people and goes way beyond what’s expected to make sure his operators understand their jobs.”

A Grade II water operator and Grade III wastewater operator in his 50s, Mills is the city’s oldest operator. Like Patterson, he started as a laborer and had no interest in making wastewater a career. “However, with Chris’s help and encouragement, I learned more about wastewater and found out I liked it a lot. Chris helped me learn the job and get my certifications. I couldn’t have done it without him.”

Jacob Cadle, Grade III wastewater operator, who has worked for Patterson for about two years, observes, “They don’t come any better than Chris. He’s super smart and will let you do just about anything. All he asks is that you do the best you can do every day. If you need help, he’s right there to give it to you.”

Family first

Though grateful for the kind words, Patterson measures his success by accomplishments outside Jacksonville utility operations. He’s proud to serve as a deacon at Profile Baptist Church, one of 44 churches of various denominations in the area. His wife, Paula, works with youth there and has been a speech pathologist at Pleasant Valley Elementary School since 2003.

While he enjoys fishing, running, and grilling, spending time with his family is by far his favorite activity. The Pattersons take part in volleyball and softball because of their daughters’ participation. Leah is 13, Sarah is 10, and Ellie is 8; they attend Pleasant Valley Elementary. “I’m a family man, and that means whether I fish, bowl, go to church, or play softball and volleyball, my family is with me,” Patterson says.

Professionally speaking, Patterson plans to stay right where he is for the immediate future, at least until he can retire after 25 years. At some point, he may look into starting another career in the water or wastewater field. Right now, he’s focused on being the best professional possible.

“One of the things I love the most about this job is that when I get up every day I know I’m serving the community,” he says. “Our department motto is: Community, Customers, Commitment. That’s what we live by. My family drinks the same water as everybody else, and I know that the water is the best we can produce.”

Challenges and achievements

Chris Patterson has had his share of accomplishments. They include managing a $500,000 project to replace lead-joint pipe with ductile pipe, overseeing a 20,000-foot sewer rehabilitation that included new pipe lining, and providing guidance for refitting all lift stations with submersible pumps.

His biggest challenge has been managing a $10.8 million wastewater treatment plant upgrade and expansion to increase efficiency and reduce operating costs. Launched in December 2016, the project is to be completed near the end of 2018.

“It’s a huge undertaking,” says Mayor Johnny Smith, who spearheaded the effort to fund the project. “Chris is responsible for every piece of equipment that goes into the facility. In addition, he and the operators have to keep the plant running as they work on the upgrade. That takes a lot of doing for everyone concerned.”

Built in 1955, the 3.5 mgd (design) plant underwent its first upgrade in 1971 and a second in 1992. Plans call for upgrading the existing mechanical treatment process for activated sludge. That includes new headworks and a biosolids dewatering system with a new belt press (BDP Industries). The plant is also getting a new screw press and pumps (Fleck Systems), a pre-anoxic basin, an aerobic digester, a UV disinfection system, and a major SCADA system upgrade.

“There are a lot of changes in technologies and processes that should last us 20 or 25 years,” Patterson says. “Sure it’s a headache with half the plant being shut down, but we believe the upgraded facility will make us more efficient, keep us in compliance and contribute to a better environment.”


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