For This Utah Wastewater Operations Manager, Water Isn't Just a Job

Hatfield Award winner Steve Williams oversees a major treatment plant upgrade while looking to a future of water reuse for his Utah utility district.

For This Utah Wastewater Operations Manager, Water Isn't Just a Job

Investing in a microscope and the training to use it proved to be a big advancement for Steve Williams and his team.

When Steve Williams went to work for the Magna Water and Sewer District in 1977, it was “just a job.” Not anymore.

“It became a career for me,” says Williams, winner of a 2017 William D. Hatfield Award from the Water Environment Association of Utah. “I really got into the work, and I could not believe the technology. Here we are, taking this dirty water and turning it into a material that can be developed into fertilizer and clean water that we can reuse.”

And speaking of reuse, Williams aspires to build a system to produce and distribute tertiary effluent for irrigation around the district. That comes after completion of a $22 million wastewater treatment plant upgrade, which started construction last fall.

For his success, Williams credits his team members — award winners in their own right. “I’m really proud of our team,” he says. “Just about all of them have been named Operator of the Year. Two years in a row now we’ve had the top collections system operator for facilities treating under 5 mgd. We’ve got a very nice plant here. It does a great job.”


The Magna district serves a population of about 32,000 at the base of the Oquirrh Mountains west of Salt Lake City and next to the world’s largest open-pit copper mine, now owned by Rio Tinto. The district provides drinking water, wastewater treatment and irrigation water delivered from reservoirs. Williams has been wastewater operations manager for the past 15 years, responsible for collections and treatment.

The wastewater treatment plant was built in 1962 as a digester and trickling filter facility. A 1987 upgrade converted it to an oxidation ditch (Smith & Loveless) with a design capacity of 3.3 mgd. A later expansion boosted the design flow to 4.0 mgd; average flow is now 2.8 mgd.

The facility has a bar screen and a fine screen (HUBER Technology) at the headworks, along with a PISTA Grit system (Smith & Loveless).

Biosolids from the oxidation ditch are dosed with polymer and delivered directly to a pair of Model RoS3 inclined screw presses (also HUBER Technology) that increase the solids content from 1 to 15 percent. The material is then trucked to a contractor site for composting and ultimately for sale.

The current upgrade will replace old brush aerators with surface-mounted aerators supplied by Aeration Industries International. “We hope this new equipment, combined with our upgraded SCADA system, will provide a brain to guide the feeding of air to our system,” Williams says.

The upgrade will also include phosphorus removal by addition of alum to the secondary effluent, a process designed by Carollo Engineers to meet a new state permit requirement of 1.0 mg/L total effluent phosphorus. In addition, the emergency generators and the entire electrical system will be replaced.

Up the ranks

To oversee it all, there’s Williams, who spent his first 10 years with the district as a second-shift operator. After the 1987 upgrade, the second shift was eliminated and Williams moved to days. He became a lead operator in 1993 and stepped up to his current role in 2009.

“In the beginning, just about everybody at Magna would work up the chain,” Williams recalls. “Of course you had to have the certifications to do that, and the desire. As the older people retired, you’d move up the ladder. So my time finally came. Certain people are meant to lead, and other people are better off under leadership. You have to have great workers.”

His approach to leadership is straightforward: “You need to give everyone a chance. We talk about our goals, and then I let our lead operators lead the team. We talk about what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it, and then I give them the reins. I don’t micromanage them at all. We do it together. That’s why our lead operators have been so successful winning awards. Both our treatment and collections crews have just shined.”

Their excellence had been recognized by the Water Environment Association of Utah. In 2016, Raymond Mondragon, collections lead, received an Outstanding Collections Operator Award, and Tony Peterson, wastewater lead, received an Outstanding Water Reclamation Operator Award. In 2017, Rob Jaterka, collections operator, received an Outstanding Collection Operator Award. The Magna team also includes Beau Lamper, Ed Tucker and Scott Beck, plant operators; and Clint Giles and Dallas Henline, collections operators.

Spotless record

That team is responsible for the facility’s permit compliance record. “We have never, ever had an issue,” Williams says. “We have a total clean record with the state and the EPA. We’re careful with everything. We make sure we’re doing it right.

“We sample our system three days a week. Everybody takes part in the process. I may be the chief but I’ve got all these team members out there working. They’ll come to me if they have a problem, but they know how to take charge. They all can make decisions. They’ve all got Grade 4 certifications. They know the process. We try to fine-tune our plant. We’re always working at making it better.”

One on the biggest advances came just a few years ago when the plant acquired a microscope and invested in training the team to use it effectively. “We take samples almost every day and see how the bugs are doing,” Williams says. “It’s all about how happy the bugs are. They’ve got to have food and air. You keep the bugs healthy and happy, you’ve got a great plant. There is a fine line between a great plant and a mediocre plant. A mediocre plant can still run for a long time, but if you’re going to have it be great, you have to be able to fine-tune it.

“Before we had the microscope, we had to depend on our outside lab. We would provide the samples, and it was a long process before somebody looked at them and got back to us. Now we can see what’s going on with those bugs daily. That has been a huge thing.”

The next big step

With the treatment upgrade underway, Williams is looking toward effluent reuse. That will mean adding sand filtration after the secondary clarifiers, building out the distribution system and adding pumps for delivery.

Already the plant effluent is used on site for in-plant washing and grounds irrigation, saving about 100,000 gpd of potable water. Irrigation water is also delivered from reservoirs to some customers, but that supply is seasonal and has issues with algae blooms. “Our effluent would be much cleaner and much better as irrigation water for golf courses, schools, churches and our residents,” Williams says.

The wastewater collections system flows entirely by gravity to the treatment plant. On the flip side, delivering reuse water will mean pumping the tertiary effluent up the mountainsides to the reservoirs. A share of the distribution system is already in place, since for the past 10 years the district has required all new developments to install piping for irrigation water. The district itself has laid sections of piping in conjunction with other projects when possible.

Williams envisions the reuse system greatly reducing demand for potable water, much of which is now used for irrigation. Given the community’s growth, the reuse system could delay expansion of the potable water system for as long as 20 years.

The district has applied for a $5 million-dollar grant from the federal Bureau of Reclamation to help cover the estimated $10 million cost of the reuse system. “I think we’ll proceed whether we get the grant or not, but the grant would certainly help a lot,” Williams says. “I’m really hoping we can do it in the next three to five years.”

Building the team

Meanwhile, Williams continues to encourage close teamwork. One catalyst for that has been the Water Environment Federation’s Operations Challenge. About a dozen years ago, Williams attended a state-level wastewater conference with three district trustees. There they watched Operations Challenge competitions.

“The trustees were just amazed,” Williams says. “They said, ‘Our guys are this good. Can’t we do this?’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’” The district assembled a team, named Magna Flow, and enabled its members to devote time for practice.

“Our people have done fantastic,” Williams says. “It has turned everybody around. The camaraderie we have developed with this challenge has been outstanding.” Members of the Magna Flow team have gone on to the national Operations Challenge at WEFTEC as part of a Utah team called the Wasatch All-Stars.

In 2012, Beau Lamper, wastewater operator, was a member of a Wasatch team that placed third in the collections event and fifth overall. In 2015, a collections operator was on a team that finished second in maintenance and 10th overall. In 2017, Clint Giles, collections operator; Ed Tucker, wastewater operator; and the Wasatch team place second in maintenance and 17th overall.

Reflecting on his career, Williams takes special pride in his team and facilities: “We’ve got a beautiful plant here. We’ve got it landscaped, and we use our reuse water to keep it that way. We keep our operation clean and pretty. Everybody looks great. Our grounds are manicured. Our trucks are all washed. We keep everything painted and cleaned up.

“After all these years, I still love my job. I like coming to work. People say, ‘Gosh, you’re probably thinking about retiring.’ Not me. I have no thought of retiring. At home I’ve got plenty to do to keep me occupied, but I still love coming to work. Wastewater is a big part of my life. I’ve traveled all over the country and have seen so much at many different plants. My wife, Shelly, and I always go to WEFTEC.

“I’ve had great support from my family, and I’ve had the support of my team here, too. I support them, and they support me. It’s been a fantastic combination.”

Horsing around

Before he started his wastewater career, Steve Williams was involved with a family ranch — raising, training and showing cutting horses. He’s still active in that endeavor with his wife, Shelly, and their five children.

Cutting horses take part in contests in what has long been among the world’s most popular equine sports; each year thousands of cutting events are held worldwide. The sport harks back to the 1800s when cowboys used their best horses for cutting. In today’s cutting horse contests, a rider selects and separates one cow from a herd. The cow’s instinct is to return to the herd; the horse keeps it from doing so, independent of any direction from the rider.

“Trained cutting horses are incredibly intelligent and instinctive athletes,” says information on the website of the National Cutting Horse Association. “The competition is judged based on difficulty and how well the horse anticipates and reacts. This is the only equine competition where the horse is required to think.”

Williams observes, “It’s quite an addicting sport when you ride a horse that can do that. I’ve been doing it for a lot of years.” Williams works with the horses after work hours and on weekends. He was president of the local cutting horse association for 10 years and has been a National Cutting Horse Association director; he still judges cutting horse shows. His wife is an announcer at shows.

Williams embarked on his wastewater career to gain stability for his family in the form of a reliable income, insurance and a retirement plan: “In any livestock industry, you have so many variables and so many things can happen.”

So, how many horses do he and his family have on their 50-acre spread? “We have about 30 or 40 horses. If you have to count them, then you don’t really have that many.”


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