A Kentucky Operator Represents a New Generation in the Water Treatment Leadership

A college chemistry degree helped Chris Gohman move quickly up the ranks in his Kentucky water district. He’s looking ahead to a long and exciting career.

A Kentucky Operator Represents a New Generation in the Water Treatment Leadership

Gohman cleans the Hach Surface Scatter 7 sc turbidimeter.

At first glance, Chris Gohman’s career looks pretty typical. He supervises the water plant where he started working, collected the 2019 Drinking Water Operator Award from the Central Kentucky Water & Wastewater Operators Association and was elected the central Kentucky chapter’s water director officer. But then you notice that Gohman is just 27.

With only a few years of work experience and about a year as a supervisor, he represents the next generation of operators and is already in a position to make changes. Gohman oversees the Pirtle Spring Water Plant for Water District No. 1 in Hardin County, Kentucky. His plant and the district serve the northern part of the county and sell water to three other utilities. Another utility, Hardin County Water District No. 2, handles the southern part of the county and two other counties.

Far-flung operations

District No. 1 runs the Pirtle Spring plant and the distribution system in its area. It also runs the wastewater treatment plants and collections systems for the cities of Radcliff and Fort Knox. The district operates the Fort Knox water plants under contract but subcontracts the work to Louisville Water, about 40 miles northeast. Recent interconnections with District No. 2 and Louisville allow the systems to share water in case of need.

Gohman’s plant has two sources of water: Pirtle Spring, with an allowed 3.1 mgd withdrawal, and Head of Rough Spring, which is in a different watershed and has an allowed withdrawal of 1.152 mgd during the dry months of May to November and 2.88 mgd during the rest of the year.

The district’s most recent permits for withdrawing water from the springs (Pirtle Spring issued in 2017 and Head of Rough Spring issued in 2015) now include streamflow limits, as well as limits on the volume of water pumped out. For Head of Rough Spring, operators must ensure that at least 1.5 cfs is flowing down the stream fed by the spring. The Kentucky Geological Survey installed a real-time stream monitor to measure the flow and will do the same at Pirtle Spring, Gohman says. The permit for Pirtle Spring requires at least 1 cfs flowing downstream.

The Pirtle Spring plant earned the 2018 Best Tasting Water Award from the Kentucky/Tennessee Section of the American Water Works Association. This year the team plans to submit an entry at the national AWWA conference in Denver. “It will be interesting because when we won the award for Kentucky/Tennessee, we had free chlorine disinfectant,” Gohman says. “Now we’re on chloramine. We believe our water still tastes best of the best.” 

More demand

Water demand growth at the Pirtle Spring plant is driven by civilian employees at Fort Knox. They live off base, and many work in the 900,000-square-foot Army Human Resources Command building. In addition, Elizabethtown, the county seat, is gaining new businesses, and those people are moving to the northern end of the county.

Gohman was born in Elizabethtown (E-town to the locals). He studied science in high school and picked chemistry as his major at nearby Georgetown College. After that, his experience as an athlete drew him toward a career in health care. He was accepted at a chiropractic school in Davenport, Iowa, but had second thoughts about going so far from home. A friend at the gym told him the water district was hiring.

“I had no idea about the water industry before I started here,” Gohman says. He interviewed with the district and learned it had a lab where his chemistry degree would be valuable. He began as an operator trainee and did that job for about nine months until the water quality specialist job opened up in the lab. Gohman got the job and worked there for about two years until he was promoted to plant supervisor.

Fast-track license

Gohman holds a Class IV (highest) water treatment and distribution license; he got there quickly because of his college studies. His four-year chemistry degree counted as four years of experience under Kentucky licensing standards. With a year of practical experience under his belt, he could test for the top-level license, but he misses the practical experience he would have gained by working as a trainee for a few more years.

“A lot of guys who went through their Class I, Class II, Class III — by the time they get their Class IV, they’re seasoned operators. But with me, I had only the one year of experience operating the plant. There are plenty of things around the plant that I’m learning.”

This isn’t a big problem; it’s more an irritation. “I guess one of the main things I’m thinking of is washing a filter,” he says. “Usually our filters are washed on the midnight shift, and I had very limited training on that shift. Sometimes the filters need to be washed during the day, and I still have to get my notes out, where others can do it in their sleep.”

He’s a working supervisor, one of eight people who run the plant 24/7. If one person is on vacation and someone calls in sick, Gohman may work from 8 a.m. to midnight to cover: “I don’t mind it. It helps me become more efficient at operating the plant. I do a little bit of everything, including mowing and weed-eating.”

Successes and mistakes

The biggest success Gohman has seen in his career was the conversion from chlorine disinfection to chloramine. The change was years in the planning and came to fruition during in his tenure as supervisor. It was driven by the interconnections with Louisville and District No. 2. Both were using chloramine, and both were reluctant to intermingle their chloramine water with the chlorine water from District No. 1. So the district had to switch to chloramine as well in order to buy outside water.

That meant a great deal of preparation and research and ultimately a decision to change direction, Gohman says. Originally the district team planned to create chloramine using ammonia gas. They set up a building for the gas, plumbed it and installed gas detectors and a water softener that would enable the water to carry the dissolved gas.

Then the district hired a new person for Gohman’s lab job. That new hire came from District No. 2, where the switch to chloramine had been made using liquid ammonia. The liquid was easier and safer to handle, so the team abandoned gas and switched to liquid. Another benefit of the switch to chloramine is a drastic drop in disinfection byproducts. From a reading of about 40 ppb at one site, the highest reading after three months on chloramine was about 13 ppb.

What was to be the ammonia gas room may be repurposed for a different chemical feed. Chlorine gas is now used to create chloramine in reaction with liquid ammonia, but the team is considering a switch to 12.5 percent sodium hypochlorite. “If that’s not more economically efficient, it’s obviously safer than the gas,” Gohman says.

A go-getter

Gohman says his biggest mistake has come in communicating with his team. Telling one person to relay information to the next shift was not a reliable method because the message would sometimes become scrambled. “So I’ve been doing more emailing to everybody instead of verbally telling someone to tell the next shift,” he says.

Communication is not a factor to Justin Metz, the county systems manager and Gohman’s boss. It was Gohman’s communications skills, along with the attention to detail he showed in the lab, that helped Metz decide Gohman was right for the plant supervisor job.

“He has a high aptitude for everything involved in the water treatment business,” Metz says. “He’s a quick learner. If anything new was thrown at him, it was a short time until he was as knowledgeable as anyone in the company.”

Gohman is also a go-getter who looks for continuous improvement and sets high goals for himself and his department. After meeting those goals, he sets slightly tougher ones for the next year. “He wants to make sure we’re doing the best of the best,” Metz says.

A career ahead

Gohman hasn’t taken time to look ahead and plan a career. “I love the community, who I work with, and what I do,” he says. “I see the water district growing and continuing to grow. I can see myself here for the next 20 to 25 years.”

Growth may soon bring a new project. Although the plant is rated to produce 3.1 mgd, its source water allows at least 4.2 mgd. So the district is now looking at expanding the plant to process all the water it can legally draw. On many days, the district is already buying some water from Louisville or District No. 2 to meet its demand, Gohman says.

If a rural development loan comes through for the water district, some of that money will pay for a fourth filter that was planned during a plant rebuild in 2009. Engineers will also have to look at larger high-service pumps, how those may alter pressure in the system and whether another clarifier will be required to meet the capacity.

But for most days, a fourth filter should be enough to keep the plant at its rated capacity.

“I do enjoy my job, but it is a lot of work,” Gohman says. Given the growth in his county, it looks as if Gohman will have enough to keep him busy for a career.

Managing while young

About a year ago, at age 26, Chris Gohman became a supervisor at the Pirtle Spring Water Plant in Kentucky. He is the next generation of water operators but has to manage the past generation.

A number of retirements a few years ago brought in new people, including Gohman. His staff is now mixed. He and two other people are in their 20s; five are in their 40s or older.

“As one of the youngest on staff and one of the newer guys here, I’m trying to make changes and ask operational questions, like why things have been run a certain way,” he says.

In any workplace, team members with 15 to 20 years’ experience can be less tolerant of change than younger people, who believe they have fresh ideas or viewpoints. Older workers may resist because they’ve seen new ideas fail or because they simply don’t want to deal with change. Gohman recognizes that and finds ways to work through it.  

“I like to get their input,” he says. “They’ve been here longer than I have. I like to know why we do it this way. If they just say, ‘This is the way we’ve been doing it for years,’ then I’ll ease into asking if we can be more efficient or find an easier way. The operators here are awesome. They are willing to listen to anything I say and try anything I suggest. So it’s not like there’s a whole lot of restraint. They do make it easy.”

Another advantage Gohman has: All the team members are Hardin County natives, as he is. They know many of the same people and have a similar mindset: “That definitely helps.”


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