A Nevada Operator's Professionalism Earns Him MVP Status Among Co-workers and Peers

‘Calm and collected’ Andrew Hickman helps a rural Nevada water treatment plant produce a decade of violation-free operation while building an award-winning career.

A Nevada Operator's Professionalism Earns Him MVP Status Among Co-workers and Peers

Andy Hickman observes operator Josh Bisset as he performs maintenance on a Stenner Classic Series peristaltic metering pump. 

Quick: What’s a synonym for “professional”? For those who live and work in the Round Hill General Improvement District near Lake Tahoe in Nevada, the answer is a snap: Andrew “Andy” Hickman.

Recently promoted to district manager after serving as chief operator at the Jeffrey Timmens Water Treatment Facility, baseball-loving Hickman has reliably delivered safe, clean drinking water to the 470 residential and 50 commercial customers in tiny Zephyr Cove (population 565), on the southeast shore of Lake Tahoe, about 60 miles south of Reno. He managed the plant with the focus of a true pro — think Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw — earning him MVP status among co-workers and industry peers.

Praise and awards

Before retiring, Hickman’s predecessor as district manager, John Fassmann, called him “reliable.” Josh Bisset, water operator, says his 48-year-old supervisor is “precise,” and Patti Page, veteran administrative assistant, labels him “unflappable.” Those are all apt descriptions of Hickman, a California native who holds Level 3 water treatment and Level 3 water distribution certifications.

In March 2018, the Nevada Rural Water Association presented Hickman with its Butch Smith Drinking Water Operator of the Year Award for Extraordinary Service and Dedication. The award is named in honor of longtime operator Frank Gordon “Butch” Smith.

Clearly moved by what he calls an “unexpected honor,” Hickman says, “I get great satisfaction providing clean water to our customers. Three years ago, Douglas County came in third in the Best Tasting Water contest put on by the NRWA, and that felt really good. But knowing that we haven’t had any state or federal violation whatsoever in over 10 years and produce a product that sustains life at a level that keeps people, plants and animals healthy keeps me coming to work every day.”

Career full of twists

Like many major leaguers, Hickman has had plenty of curves and change-ups in his career. After graduating from Paramount High School near Long Beach, California, Hickman started at Cerritos Community College based in Norwalk, then moved to Long Beach State University, where he majored in business.

Hickman resumed his studies “as a more mature adult” at California Coast University in Santa Ana. Though he didn’t finish, preferring to play baseball and serve as a paramedic (his chosen career), he vows to get his degree in the next year and a half “and check off that box on my bucket list.”

Seeking new challenges, Hickman moved to Nevada in 1997 and lived for a time with his cousin in Fallon, a city of 8,600 in Churchill County, an agricultural area. Unable to latch onto a big-league job as an emergency medical technician, Hickman in late 1997 moved to Gardnerville, an unincorporated town of 5,600 in Douglas County, some 20 miles west of the water treatment plant, where he lives today with his wife, Tammy, and 17-year-old son, Vance.

In January 1998 he was hired by Rite of Passage, an organization in Minden, that provides a variety of support and treatment programs (foster care, residential, educational) nationwide to improve the lives of troubled, at-risk and vulnerable youth. When Hickman left there in November 2009, he had risen to director of training and staff development. While the position brought him rewards and challenges, he felt something was missing and sought a major career change.

The very next day, he started at the Round Hill General Improvement District; a friend had told him about an opening at the water treatment plant, and he jumped at the chance. Hickman worked at the district until August 2015, then left to become an operator for the Indian Hills General Improvement District, a residential community of 5,600 founded in 1973 that has water and wastewater treatment facilities. He returned to the Round Hill district in 2017 and was named chief operator shortly thereafter. He was promoted to district manager in August 2018. 

“Being a water operator is a big breath of fresh air compared to what I had been doing,” Hickman says. “Although working for a company that helps rehabilitate juvenile delinquents was satisfying and at times enjoyable, I really like my job here. There’s always something new and stimulating happening.”

Hustle and reliability

Despite its small size, the Round Hill keeps Hickman, Fassmann, Bisset and other employees hopping. Founded in 1964, the district serves a community of full-time residents and vacation homes with single-family houses and some condominiums. Commercial customers include the Round Hill Square shopping center in the southern part of the district, along with real-estate firms and medical, dental and accounting offices.

Clearly, Hickman has what it takes to do the job, says Fassmann, a Level 3 water operator and water distribution licensee who was named district manager in January 2018. “Andy is a very good employee and extremely reliable,” says Fassmann, who was an operator at the water treatment facility and in water distribution for eight years. “He’s one of those guys who you can give a task to and know it will be done correctly, on time and without a lot of fuss or drama. Plus, Andy is great at instructing and coaching the newer operators. That is vital to their success and ours.”

Hickman works out of the district’s headquarters in the neighborhood of Zephyr Cove, about a mile from the water treatment plant, which stands on the beach at Lake Tahoe, the 10th deepest alpine lake in the world, 1,000 feet deep on average. The plant runs just under 500,000 gpd.

Starting the day

With help from pumps equipped with variable-frequency drives, water is drawn from the 22-mile-long lake to two Tri-Mite 175 mixed-media filters (Evoqua Water Technologies) where the water flows through HDPE media in a clarifier, over weirs, and down through anthracite, sand and garnet media. The finished water at 0.03 NTU is then treated with sodium hypochlorite and moved to a contact chamber. It is delivered to four storage tanks by way of booster station next to the plant.

In all, the district has 1.75 million gallons of storage. In addition, Hickman and crew maintain 7.8 miles of public waterlines, 5.4 miles of sanitary sewers and all roadways within the district.

A typical Hickman day starts with pump runs, which means physically checking pumps, recording pump hours and totaling the gallons pumped per day. This gives the operators a better handle on how the system is running. Beyond inspecting booster stations and lift stations, they evaluate maintenance issues and, when necessary, take preventive measures.

Routine maintenance includes repairing pump motors, fixing tubing that delivers chlorine to the treatment process, and in winter, cleaning filter media and clarifiers, which Hickman describes as “thousands of beanbag balls” made out of high-density polyethylene.

“So far, we’ve had no major problems with our equipment,” Hickman says. “In January 2018, we had a leak in a hydrant lateral that became an all-hands-on-deck situation and took a little less than six hours to repair. A tree root had grown far enough down to break the pipe, and we had to dig down and cut the root out so the pipe could return to its normal position.”

A go-to guy

Such activity requires a cool head and plenty of knowledge, qualities Hickman demonstrates every day. That’s according to Bisset, a Level 2 water operator who repairs pumps and filters and in winter drives the snowplow that keeps the district’s wide roads open when surrounding communities are down to one lane.

“Andy embodies professional precision,” Bisset says. “He’s my go-to guy for everything related to water treatment. He’s direct and to the point and a good teacher who tells you how things should be done. If you get off track, he’ll get you straightened out. He really motivates me to follow in his footsteps.”

Another fan is Page, who keeps the district in working order, supporting Hickman, Fassmann, Bisset and the rest of the staff and handling payroll, invoices, grant requests, budgets and more.

“Andy is absolutely great to work with,” says Page, who’s been at the district for the last 15 years and has worked closely with Hickman since he arrived in 2009. “He’s laid-back, doesn’t let things bother him and is always willing to answer questions. What’s great is that Andy takes pride in what he does, as do the other operators. They’re efficient and they’re proud that they provide clean, safe drinking water to the residents here.”

Dodger blue

While his district manager job keeps him hustling, Hickman is never too busy to talk baseball. A lifelong bleed-Dodger-blue fan (“If he could be a Dodger, he would,” Page says), he recounts as if it were yesterday being an 18-year-old at the Los Angeles ballpark on the night of Oct. 15, 1988, when outfielder Kirk Gibson whacked a pinch-hit home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to give the Dodgers a 5-4 win over the Oakland Athletics in Game 1 of the World Series.

“I’ve been a big baseball guy all my life,” Hickman says. “Whether it was playing Little League ball, coaching, or sitting on boards for youth baseball, I’m always ready and willing to get involved. I still play a bit of softball, and when tournaments come up, I’ll call a couple of friends and say, ‘Let’s go.’”

As for the future, Hickman wants to finish his career at the Round Hill district “because it’s a great place to work.” But, like any true professional, he plans to continue moving upward, the latest step being district manager. Right now, he’s pleased with nearly a decade of producing violation-free drinking water and being in the water treatment field.

“Water treatment is not only a good career, but it’s also a necessary career,” he says. “Water is life and one of the things we need on a daily basis. If we can’t provide safe, clean drinking water to the population we serve, we’re in a world of hurt.”

Two operators, separate honors

Andrew “Andy” Hickman is linked with two water treatment operators who contributed a great deal to their communities and received recognition for their commitment to providing clean, safe drinking water.

The water treatment facility in Zephyr Cove, Nevada, where Hickman was chief operator, is named for Jeffrey “Jeff” Timmens, who retired in November 2008 after 23 years of service. A story in the Local 39 International Union of Operating Engineers newsletter says, “Jeff is one of those unique individuals that everybody likes. He is quick with a smile and always willing to help out fellow members, management and residents of the district in which he proudly served.”

According to Patti Page, administrative assistant at the Round Hill General Improvement District and friend for more than 30 years, Timmens moved to Florida after he retired. Page calls him “very easy to work with; he just did his job, was real good at it and enjoyed it too.”

Asked what Timmens is up to today, Page answers with a laugh. “Jeff is very much alive. When he visits Lake Tahoe, he makes sure to stop in and see all of us here. He’s an absolutely great guy — fun, funny, witty, easygoing and intelligent.” 

The award Hickman received from the Nevada Rural Water Association is named for Frank Gordon “Butch” Smith, who died in April 2017 at age 74. From 2002 until 2017, Smith was the operator at the water treatment plant in Jarbidge, an unincorporated community in Elko County, about 10 miles south of the Nevada/Idaho border.

Dale Johnson, water and sewer superintendent in Elko (population 20,000), knew Smith well. He remembers that Smith kept a daily log of everything he did at the plant, from the flow characteristics of Bear Creek to the temperature outside.

“Butch was a dedicated man for the water system of his community,” Johnson says. “He also took care of the roads in town and the canyon road coming in. He was the mechanic when someone’s car broke down, fixed flat tires, repaired people’s appliances, built things for people, helped build the volunteer fire station, community center and town park, and trash facility, and gave the shirt off his back to anyone who needed it.”


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