In-House Training and Incentive Programs Help Drive Performance for a Florida Water Plant Team

Operators at the Bay County Water Treatment Plant are trained to expect more from themselves. The performance results are evident.

In-House Training and Incentive Programs Help Drive Performance for a Florida Water Plant Team

The Bay County plant won the 2017 Water Plant Operations Excellence Award from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for the sixth consecutive year.

Bay County (Florida) Utility Services trains its operators to do more than the minimum. The utility has an in-house training program for new employees and an incentive program to encourage staffers to obtain licensing beyond what their job descriptions require.

That has worked out well for the award-winning Bay County Water Treatment Plant in Panama City. Today, the plant has a well-trained, experienced staff, with minimal turnover.

The team takes a proactive approach to maintenance. Asset management software (Cartegraph) helps them keep track of equipment condition and value. The plant won the Florida Department of Environmental Protection Plant Operations Excellence Award for large community systems each year from 2011 to 2017.

It was also one of four plants to win the 2018 American Water Works Association American/Canadian/Mexican Water Landmarks Award, recognizing a water landmark that is at least 50 years old with a “direct and significant relationship with water supply, treatment, distribution or technological development.”

Treatment challenges include significant rain events that can change source water quality within hours. Finished water quality is excellent at 0.03 to 0.08 NTU.

Increasing capacity

The Bay County plant, built in 1967, was upgraded in 1985 from 10 to 50 mgd permitted capacity. In 2007, capacity was boosted to 60 mgd. Today, it serves about 150,000 customers and wholesales water to Panama City, Panama City Beach, portions of Lynn Haven, the cities of Springfield, Callaway, Parker, Mexico Beach and Tyndall Air Force Base.

Source water is supplied from two locations along the Deer Point Reservoir: one on the lower end and the other on the upper end. Depending on needs and conditions, the water can be received at the plant from either source, separately or blended.

The conventional treatment process includes 11 multimedia filters (Evoqua Water Technologies), sodium hypochlorite disinfection (Odyssey Mfg.), zinc orthophosphate addition for corrosion control, and fluoridation.

The treated water is sent to a wet well and then a clearwell, before entering two 5-million-gallon storage tanks. The water is pumped to the distribution system via eight high-service pumps (Pentair - Fairbanks Nijhuis). Sludge is dewatered with two Enviroquip belt filter presses (Ovivo USA). Green South Solutions hauls the dried cake for land application.

The 40-acre site has no offsite stormwater discharge. Backwash water is processed through the filter backwash solids handling facility before entering two retention ponds. Stormwater is directed to a 3-million-gallon reservoir. Both residual streams are pretreated and returned to the water plant headworks.

In 2018, the plant replaced its SCADA software with VTScada (Trihedral Engineering Limited). “It allows better trending,” says Bobby Gibbs, water division superintendent. “Operators can select any value on the screen and track current and past treatment performance data, such as chemical dosages, residuals, tank levels and pump status. There is much greater access to historical data throughout the entire system.”

Meeting the guidelines

A team of 12 operators and 10 maintenance staff members keep the plant operating smoothly. The operators’ control room is equipped with benchtop lab equipment for performing minute-by-minute water-quality checks. Bacteriological testing is conducted by Bay County’s state-certified lab.

Operators work 12-hour shifts with a three-day weekend off every other week. Every hour, they calculate dosages on all chemicals. They perform grab samples and jar tests as needed to maintain finished water quality. They use Area-Wide Optimization Program tools and methods to track turbidity and improve plant performance.

They also give plant tours to school groups and other utilities. Gibbs says, “We’ve had people tour the plant who are preparing for the state licensing exam. Being able to see a surface water plant and discuss different processes with other operators makes the information they have been reading in the training manuals easier to understand.”

Gibbs (Class A water certification) has 40 years in the industry, nine with Bay County. He oversees a staff of 22, including:

  • Christopher Fritze, chief operator (Class A, 16 years)
  • Sean Lathrop, lead operator (Class A, 7 years)
  • Operators Tracy Griffin, Raymond Nolind, Darren Robinson, Kevin Maxwell, Rueben Thompson, Adrian Lewis, Casey Sebold, Chris Robinson, William Sumner and Sean McClelland.

The operators’ greatest strength is their willingness to stay up to date on new rules and regulations and to do the best job they can, Gibbs says: “They want to know what’s happening and where we’re going. Bay County’s management team encourages staff members to present their ideas in a proposal format for team discussion and review so that we can take advantage of our team’s input.”

Gibbs says the operators’ greatest success is maintaining their level of expertise in meeting the guidelines: “Since 2010, we have not had a treatment violation.”

Improving the process

In 2016, the operations staff came up with a solution to improve an aging low-density lime system. “For the past 15 years, operators spent many hours trying to maintain and operate it,” Gibbs says. “The feed lines and chemical pumps would scale and clog, and the batch tank was making solutions that were inconsistent and unreliable.”

After reading about a high-density lime that would produce a consistent product with no clogging, the team got to work. Lathrop, Fritze, Nolind and Griffin, with maintenance staff members Robert Hall and Frank Coatney, used information about a high-density lime system (MERRICK Industries) as a guide to create a system that would provide a known density. While not a high-density system, it would be better than the current inconsistent feed system.

First, they cleaned an out-of-service sodium hydroxide chemical feeder and added a mixer. This would serve as a solution tank. Then they modified the dry hydrated lime feeders so they could produce a consistent feed to the batch tanks. Next, they installed a transfer pumping system to pull from the batch tanks and fill the solution tank. Finally, they added new feed pumps to supply the product to the point of application.

The modifications took about two months and led to a consistent and more accurate solution, better pH control and reduced line clogging. This gave the operators the process control they needed. “The team really went above and beyond to solve the problem,” Gibbs says. “For almost two years, our operators used that modified system, and we were able to validate the advantages of moving to a high-density system.”

In 2018, the plant installed a new high-density lime system (MERRICK Industries). Gibbs says the learning curve was “minimal and mainly involved understanding the operational and maintenance requirements of the batching system, the hose pump capabilities and the functionality of the system’s touch screen.”

Weather worries

The raw water quality from Deer Point Reservoir is exceptional but can quickly change during rain events. “The quality from the reservoir’s lower pump station changes, including turbidity of 1.5-12 NTU,” Gibbs says. “Color can reach over 300 PCU. The alkalinity and pH drop and take longer to recover.”

Operators check the weather hourly, and if significant rain is forecast, the team starts preparing for treatment changes. “Our normal alkalinity is 25-45 ppm, and our process requires at least 25 ppm for our coagulant to work,” Gibbs says. “During a rain event of 2 or more inches, the alkalinity can drop to 5-10 ppm, so, the operators know they need to add lime to the raw water. At such times, the operators monitor the raw water every 15 minutes to identify changes and make needed treatment adjustments.”

The region averages 64 inches of rain a year. Hurricanes are another concern. In October 1995, Hurricane Opal hit the Florida coast as a Category 3 storm. “Opal made landfall near Fort Walton Beach, and the greatest impact was flooding from storm surge,” Gibbs recalls. “The biggest concern was the dam that separates North Bay from the Deer Point watershed, and the possibility of saltwater intrusion. That didn’t occur, and the plant sustained no damage during that hurricane.”

In October 2018, Hurricane Michael came ashore as a strong Category 4 storm and seriously damaged the water plant and the pumping station on the watershed’s lower end. It also damaged most of the plant’s infrastructure (see sidebar).

Future challenges

The county is planning new projects for 2019-20. “We are modeling our system to see what we need and where the gaps are,” Gibbs says. “I feel optimistic with the management team we have. Their eyes and ears are open, and any needs will be addressed.”

The team is looking 40 to 50 years out to determine how potential growth will affect its system. “We provide water to all of Bay County with the exception of a portion of Lynn Haven, so we will need to upgrade for capacity at some point as our community continues to grow,” Gibbs observes.

Another concern is finding certified operators as current ones leave or retire. The solution is to hire people with no experience and train them. “When I started here, we tried to find licensed operators, but that was difficult,” Gibbs says. “So, we started bringing in unlicensed employees and having our experienced operators train them using our SOP books and training manuals.” The county human resources and utility services departments work with schools to promote interest in the water industry.

Gibbs says the operators’ greatest challenge is to “not become complacent. They’ve been here awhile and have the experience, so complacency can set in.” He’s not too worried, though: “I don’t have trouble sleeping at night, because these guys are great, and they also try to help each other out. They work as a team.”

Surviving Michael

On Oct. 10 last year, Hurricane Michael made landfall on the Florida Panhandle. With top sustained winds of 155 mph, it was a force to reckon with. Just ask the staff at the Bay County Water Treatment Plant in Panama City.

Working that day were eight operators, six maintenance people, two instrumentation and electrical (I&E) technicians and six distribution technician. At 6 a.m., operators followed the Emergency Management Plan Standard Operating Procedures and switched the plant to generator power.

“By 12:30 p.m., they shut down the raw water pumps because of storm-related damage and loss of system communications,” says Bobby Gibbs, water division superintendent. “A half hour later, the plant lost the ability to maintain distribution flows because of major leaks, so they turned off the high-service pumps.”

Sean Lathrop, lead operator, moved the operators from the second floor control room to the lower floor for safety. By 4:30 p.m., the worst of the storm had passed, but commercial power was out and so was telemetry.

Gibbs says, “There was major roof damage to most buildings, which caused significant issues with electrical systems. Travel was all but impossible because of downed power lines and trees. Maintenance staff gathered up chain saws and went to check remote sites.”

Other staff began evaluating plant and system needs and making emergency repairs. The administration and laboratory buildings sustained only minor damage, so the I&E team relocated the operators’ computer to the administration building and installed temporary cables to allow SCADA control.

On Oct. 11, distribution crews began shutting down the main transmission lines leaving the plant and the more than 70 wholesale points of delivery (POD) to the wholesale systems.

Maintenance staff found significant damage to the first raw water pumping station. With help from the National Guard, they reached the second pumping station at 11 p.m. and found only minor damage. “At 11:30 p.m., only 35 hours after shutdown, the raw water pumps were restarted, and the treatment plant was receiving water again,” Gibbs says. The operators began refilling plant storage tanks.

On Oct. 13, distribution crews reopened one of three main transmission lines and slowly began recharging the line. Operators restarted a finished water pump, and Bay County Utilities began providing water.

Over the next few days, distribution crews reopened other transmission mains, and once the wholesale systems completed their system assessments, Bay County began reopening the more than 70 PODs.

On Oct. 16, a portable laboratory able to process up to 500 bacteriological samples per day arrived at the plant from U.S. EPA Region 4. Finally, on Oct. 21, with help from many agencies, organizations and water professionals, the utility lifted the mandatory boil-water notice and was again providing safe drinking water to customers.


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