Data Drives Decisions for the Lab Director at the Snyderville Basin Water Reclamation District

Tiffini Adams helps environmental analytical laboratories serving water reclamation districts maintain consistent technical and scientific results.

Data Drives Decisions for the Lab Director at the Snyderville Basin Water Reclamation District

Tiffini Adams’ contributions include expanding the lab’s capabilities. Bringing the analysis for more parameters in-house has saved significant dollars.

Walking into the East Canyon Water Reclamation Facility laboratory in Utah for the first time, Tiffini Adams was struck by the silence and realized it was a one-woman show — hers.

As the new laboratory director and prime analyst, Adams was responsible for maintaining the Snyderville Basin Water Reclamation District’s Utah-NELAC certified lab in Park City and performing NPDES permit sampling. “We were certified for only four analytical parameters,” she says. “That had to change.”

Six months later, with the support of Michael Boyle, Snyderville operations manager, Adams had doubled the laboratory’s scope and parameters. “That enabled all analysis except metals to be performed in-house rather than sent to a contract lab, saving the district $10,000 annually,” she says.

Adams’ career as an environmental analyst and a lab assessor provided the perfect segue to wastewater management. To learn about the field, she joined the Water Environment Association of Utah, serving on various committees and judging the Operations Challenge lab event for 12 years.

In 2017, she received the Laboratory Analyst Excellence Award, one of six WEAU awards the district received that year. The others were for the collections system, collections system supervisor (Scott McPhie), safety, excellence and Water Environment Federation Member Association service (Chad Burrell).

Finding a niche

The district operates the 4 mgd (design) East Canyon and 2 mgd (design) Silver Creek water reclamation facilities. Both have bioreactors, clarifiers and UV disinfection. East Canyon also has chemical phosphorus removal. In 2017, East Canyon earned its 14th and Silver Creek its 15th Platinum Peak Performance Award from the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. Silver Creek brings samples to the East Canyon lab for analysis.

“This is my dream job,” Adams says. “I was happy doing quality assurance for the last 14 years, but the only opportunity for career advancement was lab director, and that position doesn’t come up too often. Leaving my colleagues from three different labs was hard, but it’s been a lovely move.”

Moves are something Adams always took seriously. Growing up with a strong interest in science and math, she had no career goals while studying for an environmental science degree from the University of California, Riverside. In her senior year, while Adams worked as an organic extraction technician at an environmental analytical lab, fate stepped in.

“My boss trained me as a quality assurance officer,” Adams says. “It turned out that QA is all about numbers, and I knew instinctively that whatever I did in life would be related to numbers.”

Quality assessment involved comparing lab results by looking for transcription errors, following the traceability of reagents and reviewing test quality-control requirements. Adams also did monthly chemical hygiene inspections and helped maintain the state’s standard operating procedures for certification.

After marrying Carl and moving with him to Utah, she spent six years as an organic chemist at Timpview Analytical before joining the state Department of Health, Bureau of Laboratory Improvement, as a laboratory assessor in 2001.

“Every other year, the bureau performs on-site assessments and evaluates environmental analytical laboratories to verify they are producing legally defensible data to maintain their certification,” Adams says. “Ideally, the assessments help labs to continue to produce reliable data, batch after batch.”

Real science

The on-site assessment process enabled Adams to help improve lab performance by providing feedback to lab directors and staff. While her assessments focused mainly on the conduct of research, they also examined whether analysts achieved stated objectives. “Think of it as a peer review,” she says. “We work with labs to help them maintain consistent technical and scientific results.”

During three years with the bureau, Adams qualified as a laboratory certification officer and quality assurance officer, but she missed being an analyst. “An assessor’s life is mostly paperwork, and the stack never seems to diminish,” she says. “As an analyst, I could look at each day’s processed batches and see accomplishment.”

In 2003, she joined the Central Valley Water Reclamation District as a quality assurance officer contractor. Her responsibilities included double-checking data for wet chemistry, microbiology, metals and gas chromatography at the Central Valley and South Valley reclamation facilities.

“Quality assurance officers sit off on their own and provide a third-party perspective when reviewing data,” she says. “It was great because I knew firsthand all the hoops the labs went through to maintain their NELAC certification. The knowledge enabled me to be empathetic and encouraging in my support and data oversight role.”

Maintaining proxies

Adams also acted as a sounding board for lab directors Anthony Daw at Central Valley, Sherry Sheffield at South Valley and Megan Moak at the Jordan Basin Water Reclamation Facility. Together, they worked toward goals and kept each other on task.

“We occasionally overlook certain quarterly and annually scheduled procedures because they aren’t part of the daily routine,” Adams says. “So it’s important for the directors and the QA officer to have a cooperative relationship that keeps them on top of miscellaneous requirements.”

Some months before an on-site assessment was scheduled, Adams and the lab director conducted an internal audit duplicating everything done by the state. They created a plan, followed through with corrective action for any infractions, and mapped who would do quarterly checks and when they would be done if some were off schedule. They reviewed the quality manual, updated SOPs, and then looked at detection limits and whether analysts demonstrated current capabilities. They also ran proficiency test samples twice a year.

“Keeping up with corrective actions, upgrading SOPs and sending out reports on time were the hardest parts of the job,” Adams says. “The high point of those years was having a great network of colleagues at three different labs. On a personal level, the position enabled me to participate more fully in my children’s lives.”

As a contractor, Adams worked a three-quarter week her first year at Central Valley. The 32-hour schedule continued even after she was hired full time in 2005 and contracted out to the South Valley and Jordan Basin labs. “My schedule allowed me to take field trips with Wiley and Pamela and later serve on the boards of their middle and senior high schools,” she says. “It’s been a tremendous benefit.”

Let the games begin

An unexpected bonus arose from the Central Valley Wasted Gas team’s participation in the WEAU Operations Challenge. Adams joined WEAU to help the team prepare for the lab event and wound up judging it for 12 years.

“Joining the organization increased my knowledge and opened my world to networking further afield,” she says. “When meeting operators or other teams, conversations naturally go to troubleshooting and sharing solutions.”

Over the years, Adams served on the WEAU midyear and annual conference planning committees, the laboratory committee, and as chair of the Young Professionals. “I’m also a member of the Select Society of Sanitary Sludge Shovelers and wear my golden shovel with pride,” she says. “I’m equally proud of being a first-time judge for the lab event at WEFTEC 2018.”

Although happy at Central Valley, Adams saw an opportunity when the lab director at the East Canyon facility retired. She took the position in 2017: “I knew I could perform his duties with ease. However, the director has the ultimate responsibility, and carrying that weight is different. Thankfully, my lab director network facilitated the transition, and I have Iva Riveros, my own QA officer, to keep me on task.”

Expanding parameters

Adams’ first task was to expand the lab’s parameters from cBOD, TSS, total phosphorous, and ammonia to include TDS, BOD, nitrate, nitrite, TKN, oil and grease, and orthophosphorus. Bringing the analysis in-house saved the district processing fees and labor.

To fast-track the expansion, Adams worked closely with her colleagues at the bureau. “When I submitted paperwork, I told them it was coming and that I hoped it could be processed by a certain deadline,” she says. “The bureau’s goal is to help keep labs on task and growing, so they were eager to help.”

Their cooperation enabled the lab to have test results available in 24 hours instead of seven to 10 days. The lab has a Hach DR3900 spectrophotometer for nutrient analysis, a Hach Intellical LDO101 for cBOD and BOD analysis, and the StepSaver (Environmental Express) for oil and grease analysis. North Central Labs supplies most standards, reagents and supplies.

The next situation Adams addressed was finding a temporary replacement. East Canyon still sent out analysis when she was on vacation or attending conferences. Marlo Davis, the plant’s operations superintendent, and Cody Snyder, Silver Creek Wastewater Treatment Facility operations superintendent, rode to the rescue, sending Dave Smilanich and Jim Giles, Grade IV (highest) operators, to Adams for training.

“Their arrival was an empowering gift,” she says, “It ensures that the lab will run uninterrupted in my absence and thrive.”

Expanding education

Adams’ third improvement is looking for ways to enrich laboratory tours and extend community outreach. “The lab just received a big-screen monitor on which I show slides with active microscopic organisms from the bioreactors,” she says. “Visitors enjoy seeing rotifers eating marine microalgae, the tardigrades (water bears), and free swimmers, but it’s not enough. It would be great to collaborate with other labs and share our hands-on educational methods with each other.”

As for personal goals, Adams wants to stay where she is until it’s time to retire in 15 years. To add a homey touch and a splash of fun to the lab, she brought in her pig figurine collection. She concludes, “I am lucky to love the analytical side and quality control side of lab work and to be in such a beautiful place.”

Bruises and badges

As the laboratory judge for the Water Environment Association of Utah Operations Challenge, Tiffini Adams offered participants ways to improve their use of lab equipment, and she demonstrated better techniques. Still, the role left her feeling too much like an observer. She wanted a stronger connection with the operators.

In 2011, Adams joined Wasted Gas, the Central Valley Water Reclamation District challenge team, to experience what it was like on the other side. “It’s not just a case of doing it fast, but it’s doing it correctly as well,” Adams says. “The process control section was the hardest, and we practiced scenarios, short math, and multiple choice every week. As an aside, I knew I would never be more prepared to take the operators certification exam Grade II than after learning from these seasoned operators.” She passed the exam.

Many events were physically demanding; the team members finished the days with bumps and bruises — badges of honor. Wasted Gas won the state competition and went on to finish third at WEFTEC in 2011. “I enjoyed the experience but treasure it more now because that was the only time I participated as a team member,” Adams says.

The next year, she was preparing the lab for its on-site assessment and couldn’t spare the time to practice. Since then, work and responsibilities kept her for rejoining the team. Still, since 2005, she has missed only a few years judging the WEAU lab event.


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