An Innovative Training Method Helps an Environmental Engineer Appreciate the Role of Operators

Cross-training in operations helped Jordan Damerel bring more empathy and deeper knowledge to his role as director of engineering for a California agency

An Innovative Training Method Helps an Environmental Engineer Appreciate the Role of Operators

From left, operators Gary Crawford, Chris O’Connor and Nurel Ramadan monitor the plant from the control center.

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As Jordan Damerel cranked the hand wheel of the heavy gate on the bar screen so his operations teammates could maintain it, it occurred to him that an electric actuator would be so much easier, and well worth the cost, if only the designers had included one in their design.

“Especially when I realized that I’d soon have to go to the other end and close another gate,” he recalls.

That heavy lift was just one of the hands-on lessons Damerel learned when he joined the Fairfield-Suisun Sewer District in California four years ago. He started as an environmental engineer and transitioned to director of engineering one year ago.

During the 2 1/2 years in between, he cross-trained in operations, spending one day a week as an operator in training, learning about the plant and the collections system and how it was operated and maintained.

Through the ranks

Damerel, a California native, received his undergraduate degree in civil and environmental engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, and he then attained his master’s degree in environmental engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He began his career as a consultant, designing pump stations and water and wastewater plants. In 2015, he joined the Fairfield-Suisun district: “I was eager to get involved with the agency side of things.”

As director of engineering, his responsibilities include the district’s 23.7 mgd (design) biological wastewater treatment plant and the 75-mile long collections system with 13 pump stations. He oversees the utility’s major maintenance project and asset management programs, in addition to a capital improvement program focused on plant expansion and rehabilitation and replacement of sewer lines. He has a staff of ­­­six and manages a budget of about $10 million.

The idea to immerse him in operations and maintenance came from district management. “They had a model, based on success of the previous engineer who had worked with operations,” Damerel says. “They suggested it to me.”

No ivory tower

While Damerel spends most of his time on engineering projects, the O&M cross-training gave him invaluable hands-on experience. “I spent the day with the operations group as an operator-in-training,” he recalls. “From our operators, I learned the intricacies of how our plant ran. It was a great way to learn how everything worked, all the way down to piping and valves.

“I got a much better understanding of things that needed to be considered by engineering. I’d say that within the first week, I noted a dozen things that seemed obvious to operators but that I, as a design engineer, should have reconsidered. These are things we don’t necessarily think about.”

Damerel admits there was an adjustment period. “At the beginning, I wasn’t quite sure how much I could help, what I could help with or how I could bring value. At the same time, the operators were not exactly sure of what I could do or was willing to do. I was like ‘Hey, I’m your operator-in-training; tell me what to do.’ We had to discover what each of us knew and realize what value each of us could bring to the relationship.”

That changed quickly. The bar screen project was only one of Damerel’s many experiences, which included emptying basements full of sludge, climbing into wet wells and pumping stations, and even cleaning the Vactor truck. “It wasn’t the most enjoyable work I’ve ever done,” he says. “But it was good to see what the staff has to do. After the first month or two, the operators realized I was willing to help, and we developed a more personal connection.”

Asset appreciation

Asset management is a big part of Damerel’s job, and he strongly believes that his time in the field has helped him understand the district’s facility needs. “If we’ve got a project coming up, I have a better understanding of the assets we have and what we need to address,” he says. “I’m better able to explain to the operations groups what we are planning and ask questions about what works and what doesn’t.”

His operations training has facilitated communications: “It’s an informal setting where those conversations happen. I’m not sure they would come up in a more formal meeting. You might not necessarily hear about a failing pump or process inefficiency.”

Damerel’s experience across operational groups no doubt contributed to his unfailing commitment to organizational communications and transparency. “Jordan manages the district’s capital improvement and asset management programs, and he’s constantly working toward more straightforward and transparent planning processes that allow greater input and buy-in from O&M and engineering staff,” says Meg Herston, an environmental compliance engineer with the district who nominated Damerel for a California Water Environment Association Emerging Leader Award last year (which he won).

High praise

“Jordan’s knowledge, combined with his humility, adaptability, and willingness to seek input and feedback, has made him incredibly influential,” Herston says. It’s also a major reason the district has been successful on so many projects in recent years. They include collaborations with AECOM on a Nereda granular activated sludge nutrient removal pilot plant, as well as the district’s public-private partnership with Lystek International on a regional biosolids processing and reuse facility.

Damerel also prepared the analysis and justification that allowed the district to be awarded $4 million in principal forgiveness from the U.S. EPA Green Project Reserve, reducing a State Revolving Fund loan for its ongoing blower replacement project to $7 million.

While specific projects like these are important, Damerel gets an even bigger kick out of the collaboration that makes them possible. “My favorite work is what we do to bridge gaps between operations, maintenance and engineering — collaborating on running the plant better, improving efficiency, saving on money and power, and generating more renewables,” he says. “The key to success is to break down the silos between departments and make that happen. We do that well here, and it’s a fun place to work.”

Out of the office

With all that’s going on at work, Damerel finds time to cheer for the Oakland Athletics, read, hike and explore new places. He also teaches math and wastewater courses through Solano Community College and is the chair of the Bay Area Consortium for Water and Wastewater Education. The consortium provides free classes and networking opportunities for students interested in the water industry; many of the district’s staff members and interns have been educated through the program.

“I enjoy it,” Damerel says. “It’s really fun to see students get excited about wastewater.”

It’s just another connection he’s formed with those who operate the treatment plants.

Would he recommend such a hands-on, operations-oriented approach to others in the municipal wastewater field?

“Absolutely. In this industry, anytime you have the opportunity to try something different or diversify your experience, especially hands-on experience, you should take it. It can only benefit your agency and you personally.”

Resource efficient

The Fairfield-Suisun Sewer District serves the central Solano County (California) communities of Fairfield and Suisun City, as well as Travis Air Force Base, about 75 miles northeast of San Francisco.

The treatment plant is rated at 23.7 mgd and handles 12 mgd on average. The extra capacity was added during a major expansion in 2008-09, just before the downturn in the economy. “Today, that extra capacity gives us some flexibility,” says Jordan Damerel, director of engineering. “We can take a basin or two offline for repairs or maintenance.”

The treatment process is advanced secondary, with trickling filters and activated sludge. Treated water passes through sand/anthracite filters with a plastic underdrain (Leopold - a Xylem Brand). The water is then UV disinfected (WEDECO - a Xylem Brand). “That gives us an effluent suitable for irrigation,” Damerel says. Most of the treated water flows into Suisun Marsh and then to San Francisco Bay. A portion is used as utility water. The plant also provides water for irrigation at a local turf farm.

“We also have a partnership with the local irrigation district to provide water to flood duck ponds,” Damerel says.

Biosolids are first dewatered by an FKC screw press to about 16% solids, then provided to a Lystek Organic Material Recovery Center on the treatment plant site. Lystek converts the solids to a liquid Class A fertilizer product. The district has been managing its biosolids that way under a long-term agreement signed in 2016. The Lystek facility has more capacity than the district can fulfill, so solids from six other agencies are trucked to it.

The material has been used mainly on alfalfa and safflower fields, and the district is supporting Lystek to develop the agricultural fertilizer market. Another major project is to rehabilitate mechanical equipment for the anaerobic digesters. That includes upgrade of the mixing system, replacement of the emergency boiler for heating, and improvements to the temperature controls, solids piping and pumping, and biogas sampling and treatment systems.

Other projects include an $11 million replacement of aeration blowers with four APG-Neuros high-speed turbo blowers, a major plant electrical upgrade, and a process to plan digester gas production and use into the future.


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