Brian Ross Strives to Make His Community and Its Water and Wastewater Facilities the Best They Can Be

Brian Ross blends long experience, extensive treatment skills, and a hands-on management style to build an award-winning career in Michigan’s Genesee County.

Brian Ross Strives to Make His Community and Its Water and Wastewater Facilities the Best They Can Be

Brian Ross and Joe Perroud, senior operations supervisor, look over the daily plan in the control room of the Linden Wastewater Treatment Plant.

“Commitment” is almost a cliche, but not when applied to Brian Ross. As senior assistant director of public service for the Genesee County (Michigan) Division of Water & Waste Services, Ross devotes himself to making his community and its water and wastewater facilities the best they can be.

Ross, a plain-spoken native of Detroit, is dedicated to his profession and to the people he lives and works with. He has built his water and wastewater treatment expertise over a 40-year career as a mentor to numerous operators with a lead-by-example mindset. He has moved through the chairs of the Michigan Water Environment Association for the last 11 years, and since 2006 he has served on utility and economic development boards in Flint Township and Lansing.

Widely recognized

Such devotion hasn’t gone unnoticed. John O’Brien, director of the Water & Waste Services Division, praises Ross as someone “who always volunteers for the difficult tasks; he likes to be challenged.” William Johnson, maintenance manager for the Columbiaville Water Treatment Plant, says, “Brian is a hands-on manager who gets involved in the entire operation and who is interested in everything.”

MWEA presented Ross with the 2017 William D. Hatfield Award and the 2017 Dan Wolz Clean Water Award for Environmental Excellence. In 2013 and 2017, Ross won the MWEA Health & Safety Award for Large Municipal Treatment Plants, and in 2017 he received the National Safety Award from the Water Environment Federation.

“I was pleased and pleasantly surprised to win the two awards,” Ross says. “It’s especially gratifying that I was nominated by people who know the water and wastewater fields and realize what it takes to succeed. I never thought I’d achieve these honors when I began my career in 1978.”

Career built to last

A graduate of Henry Ford High School on the northwest side of Detroit, Ross started out as janitor at a water treatment plant at Michigan State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in physiology. Over the years, he worked toward a master’s degree in environmental engineering and chemistry, but he didn’t finish.

After college, he was hired on as a night shift wastewater plant operator for the City of Lansing and later became a process control analyst. From there, Ross spent 7 1/2 years working for Wyeth Ayerst Laboratories, now Wyeth Ayerst International, a subsidiary of the Pfizer pharmaceutical firm.

He left to become director of operations for the Southern Clinton County (Michigan) Municipal Utilities Authority before moving to wastewater division superintendent for the City of Lansing. There he ran a 100 mgd (design) wastewater treatment plant, the fourth largest in the state.

In 2009 Ross joined Genesee County, population of 407,000, as assistant superintendent at the 49 mgd Anthony Ragnone Wastewater Treatment Plant. The facility went into service in the 1960s and had major expansions in the next two decades. It is the largest of the county’s three treatment plants.

Ross, who holds Class A (highest) wastewater operator certification, was promoted to superintendent of the District 3 and District 7 wastewater treatment plants in Linden, a city of nearly 4,000. Last May he assumed his current position.

“Water and wastewater has been a great career,” Ross says. “It’s a profession that can’t be farmed out. Every community has a water or wastewater treatment facility because clean water is a public health issue. The pay is OK, and the benefits are good. I’m proud to be part of such a rewarding field.”

Adding responsibilities

These days, as Ross strives to ensure clean drinking water and compliant wastewater effluent, he juggles responsibilities for three treatment plants. Besides the District 3 and District 7 facilities, he oversees the water treatment plant in the village of Columbiaville (population 787).

The District 7 facility, called the Argentine plant, is a 300,000-gpd advanced lagoon system that employs aeration and phosphorus removal. The District 3 unit, known as the Linden plant, is an 11 mgd facility. Both are biological nutrient removal plants. They use an anaerobic/oxic process to remove phosphorus before effluent is discharged to the Shiawassee River in central Michigan. 

On the water side, the 30 mgd Columbiaville plant came online in November 2017 to serve the Flint area. It treats water taken from Lake Huron and pumped 65 miles west through the Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline. The plant serves a dozen Genesee County communities, including the cities of Mount Morris, Flushing, Clio and Montrose, as well as wholesale and retail customers.

In all, Ross’ division has a $70 million annual budget and a staff of 140 at the water plant and three wastewater plants, which serve about 300,000 people in an area that spans more than 1,100 square miles. Managing the three plants is a “real challenge,” Ross admits, especially going back to water treatment after 16 years away from it.

There’s a ton of follow-up work to be done at Columbiaville to make sure all the equipment works as it should. It’s no wonder that Ross makes three or four calls on his way into the office every morning to keep in touch with his superintendents and staff. He spends one day at the division’s main office in Flint, and for the rest of the week, he shuttles between the Linden and Columbiaville operations. He’s quick to attribute his success to his team: “I have really good people who really make me look good.”

Getting the answer

His boss for the last 10 years, O’Brien cites Ross’ perseverance as a key contributor: “What Brian doesn’t know about water and wastewater he’ll take the time to learn, and he’ll always accept really difficult tasks. If he’s weak in a particular area, he knows enough people and has enough of a network to get the information or teach himself so he can get the task accomplished.”

Another fan is the maintenance manager, Johnson, who has worked for Ross for about five years. “One thing I like about Brian is that he’s interested in everything,” Johnson says. “He doesn’t sit in his office behind closed doors and let others work. He’s always thinking about new ways to do things, how to improve the way things are done. A lot of management-types feel that if the plant is running OK, then leave it alone — other than small maintenance items. Brian is just the opposite. He’s always looking to make us more efficient.”

Joe Perroud, acting superintendent at the Linden plant, credits Ross for his focus on improving plant performance and for his determination to elevate the people who work for him. “Sometimes he’ll take you out of your comfort zone,” Perroud says. “For example, I’m not a great public speaker, but Brian encourages me to give talks to school groups or at MWEA events so I’ll get better at it. A lot of people who have worked for Brian have gone on to bigger and better things.”

Leading associations

A major part of Ross’s own development has been his involvement in the MWEA. Over the last 11 years, he has held a number of positions in MWEA, one of the state’s oldest professional organizations, representing more than 2,000 water quality professionals. He served as a director and assistant secretary-treasurer and then embarked on the senior circuit: vice president, president-elect, president and, in 2018, past president.

Ross says, “At the end of our June conference, I stepped down from the MWEA board. It’s been a real pleasure serving the organization, which strives to improve the quality of water and wastewater operators so we’ll be able to provide clean, safe water to our residents.”

Despite a full plate of professional and personal activities, Ross has no plans to slow down. Married with two grown children and a son still at home, he’s looking to spend the rest of his career right where he is: “It’s a great place to work with good people who share my commitment and the division’s commitment to our community and to the water and wastewater industry.”

Culture of commitment

Brian Ross has made community service a career-long pursuit. He serves on a number of civic and government organizations meant to improve the quality of life. It’s part of his division’s focus on getting employees involved in their communities.

“I’m pretty involved with the community; that’s how I like to spend my time,” says Ross, an Eagle Scout. The groups he has actively supported over the years include:

  • DeWitt Area Recreation Authority, board member
  • Next Michigan Development Corp., board member and recording secretary
  • Board of Commissioners – Southern Clinton County Municipal Utilities Authority, chairman
  • DeWitt Charter Township Board of Trustees
  • Clinton County Department of Public Works, chairman
  • Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Board of Examiner (certifier of wastewater operators), chairman.

These days, Ross serves on the Flint Township Board of Trustees and on the Lansing Board of Water & Light as a nonvoting commissioner. “The county administration has a strong commitment to our local communities,” says John O’Brien, director of the Genesee County Water & Waste Services Division.

The division encourages its senior and midlevel staff to get involved in professional associations like the Michigan Water Environment Association and in community groups. Several staff members besides Ross are on municipal planning boards and city councils.

Joe Perroud, the acting superintendent at the Linden treatment plant, is on the recruitment committee for MWEA and regularly puts on presentations for high school seniors to get them interested in water and wastewater careers.


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