Steve Hoambrecker: A Patient and Persistent Problem-Solver for the Communities He Serves

Challenges don’t bother Hatfield Award winner Steve Hoambrecker. He and his team consistently and diligently break down and solve problems.

Steve Hoambrecker: A Patient and Persistent Problem-Solver for the Communities He Serves

Hoambrecker takes pride in his induction into the Select Society of Sanitary Sludge Shovelers and the William D. Hatfield Award.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The subject of this article was interviewed in March 2019. After publication of the article in August, Treatment Plant Operator learned that Mr. Hoambrecker’s employment with the City of Waterloo had ended in June 2019.

Pride. Patience. Persistence. Professionalism. All describe Steve Hoambrecker, waste management services director for Waterloo, Iowa.

He’s proud of his 40 years in the clean-water profession and doubly proud of his family: his wife of over 43 years (DeAnn), three children and five grandchildren. He’s also a patient and persistent problem-solver for the organizations and communities he has served since college.

Hoambrecker treats each project like a hurdler negotiating barriers on the way to the finish line. Sometimes he’ll use the track-and-field analogy to illustrate a point to employees, city councils or the general public.

“I put up a picture of hurdles,” he says. “And I show that we’ve overcome some, but there are more hurdles ahead in order to finish the race.” His challenges at Waterloo have required such an approach. They include a consent decree to reduce sanitary sewer overflows, a waste stream with significant industrial content, a need for nutrient reduction in effluent, and winter issues with filamentous growth.   

Still, Hoambrecker, winner of the 2018 William D. Hatfield Award from the Iowa Water Environment Association, continues working toward success and is excited about the potential for biogas production and regionalization at his plant.

“Steve is a lifelong learner,” says colleague Scott Wienands, president of Nutri-Ject Systems, who’s known and worked with Hoambrecker for 30 years. “He’s inquisitive and never resistant to change. And he’s good at swaying people’s minds about new technology. The guy’s a thinker.”

All Midwestern

Hoambrecker studied at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, earning a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 1974 and a master’s degree in environmental engineering in 1986. He began his career as a student operator at the university’s lime softening water plant and as a substitute lab analyst at the city’s wastewater plant. 

Out of college, he was an environmental engineer inspecting water and wastewater plants for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. His municipal career started in Sioux City, where he supervised the solid waste department and water and wastewater treatment operations. Water treatment was city-operated, while the wastewater plant was contracted to what is now Veolia Water Technologies.

He then entered the private sector as a business development director with Stanley Consultants of Muscatine and as a product engineer with Griffin Pipe Products in Council Bluffs. In a private-public partnership with Veolia Water Technologies in Junction City, Kansas, he oversaw the Public Works Department, water treatment plant and two wastewater treatment facilities. He moved back to Iowa as Public Works director in Burlington, and in June 2016 he joined the team at Waterloo.

Overcoming hurdles

Along the way, Hoambrecker has encountered and cleared a number of barriers. A good example was the yard waste issue he faced in Sioux City: “They were collecting garbage curbside twice a week, but curbside collection of yard waste was a new concept they weren’t ready for.” Rather than give up, he helped form a citizens’ advisory council to provide third-party input, and when the time was right, the city implemented the new practice.

Even bigger challenges loomed at Waterloo. His first task was to make sure the city met all requirements of a consent decree with the U.S. EPA and the DNR on sanitary sewer overflows. “That September, we saw the second-highest river levels in the city’s history,” he says. “That indoctrinated me about the specifics of our storm and sanitary sewer system, and minimizing SSOs and sewer backups during high groundwater and rising river levels.”

The next winter, the treatment plant experienced very poor settling and related effluent violations. The plant, an activated sludge facility with UV disinfection (TrojanUV) and thermophilic-mesophilic anaerobic digestion of biosolids, accepts significant industrial flow from a hog processing operation and a tannery, as well as other industrial dischargers.

Separate processes

The plant has two biological treatment trains: one for domestic wastewater (12.7 mgd design) and the other for industrial (5.3 mgd design). “However, for economical and operational purposes, the influents are now combined and treated in the domestic aeration basin,” Hoambrecker says. “With that mode of operation, we are pushing the design limits of the biological system.”

The plant has been consistently in compliance during summer, but there have been challenges with filamentous growth (Microthrix) in winter. The DNR had issues with the arrangement, especially pushing the capacity of the in-use biological unit while having effluent violations in the winter.

But parts of the out-of-service train were not 100% operational, and the annual chemical cost to provide the alkalinity needed to deal with the industrial stream was estimated at $600,000. At the same time, the plant’s discharge monitoring permit was changed to BOD from CBOD.

During colder months, sludge age and nitrifiers were reduced, causing increased levels of ammonia, leading to increased effluent BOD. “Not only did we have BOD violations, we had TSS violations because of poor settling due to the Microthrix,” Hoambrecker says. “The real question was how to prepare ourselves to be in a more predictive situation for the next winter and keep the plant in compliance with effluent limitations.”

The right direction

Waterloo purchased a phase contrast microscope to better classify and chart microorganisms and provided on-site training for lab personnel. “Our NPDES permit also required us to perform a nutrient reduction assessment,” Hoambrecker says. “We hired Strand Associates to perform the evaluation in conjunction with an overall facility plan. A minor portion of that contract also involved treatment assistance to develop an operational spreadsheet combining various operational monitoring components, which could be used as a predictive tool.”

In one move, aeration basin settling rates were plotted versus the number of clarifiers in use and the associated flow. “That helped us predict an acceptable flow through the plant and avoid excessive solids loading to the final clarifiers,” Hoambrecker says. “It also enabled us to divert excessive flows to the equalization basin. From the spreadsheet, we can also track other parameters and predict and regulate waste activated sludge and the sludge age.”

To prepare for the next winter’s operational mode, the Waterloo team prepared the second biological unit to operate if necessary. Of course Mother Nature entered the picture with a heavy rainfall on frozen ground, causing high flows that hydraulically flushed solids and lowered the influent temperature. The Microthrix flourished again. Ice in the piping system of the industrial biological unit made it impossible to operate it.

“We were able to maintain compliance, in part by using the operational tools and microscope, but mostly because overall flows were 3 to 4 mgd lower than the past winter,” Hoambrecker says.

Further work with Strand Associates reviewed the possibility of operating the aeration basin in a sequencing batch reactor mode to reduce solids loadings to the final clarifier. That review also looked at the use of polyaluminum chloride during winter instead of putting the industrial side of the plant in operation. The city secured DNR approval of the chemical (Brennfloc from Brenntag North America), and it has been beneficial.

Communication and buy-in

No leader can solve problems without good communication and the ability to build consensus. Hoambrecker works hard to develop a team approach to confronting challenges. Key team members include Brian Bowman, assistant director and operations supervisor; Brad Manahl, operations foreman; Jesse Gaherty, maintenance foreman; and Al Bainbridge, senior operator.

“It’s important to communicate with employees as much as possible and have them be part of the solution — to enable them to see what needs to be done,” Hoambrecker says. “Your team members need to buy in and support what you’re doing. If that doesn’t happen, you need to back off and find another way around the issue at hand.”

At various points in his career, he has held brief meetings with his team every morning. At other times, it’s been weekly briefings. “Figure out what works and what doesn’t,” he says. “Think about how you can make the group more cohesive and work together better. Everyone needs to know what’s going on and be able to see the future.”

He also works with his city council; he likes to use graphics to illustrate problems and solutions instead of just trying to explain them verbally: “Just a picture of what you’re talking about can help.”

The road ahead

Communication skills will be important at Waterloo in the days ahead, as the wastewater utility faces new challenges and opportunities. “While ensuring plant compliance, we have two very exciting potential improvements,” Hoambrecker says. “One possibility involves converting biogas into pipeline-quality natural gas. 

“Both our industrial anaerobic lagoon and the wastewater plant anaerobic digesters are producing biogas that could be a very rewarding venture for the city. Similar cities across the United States use either selective membranes or pressure-swing absorption units to remove hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide and other impurities to achieve pipeline quality.

“It’s a high-risk, high-reward potential project,” Hoambrecker says. “But we need to get people on board and move forward if we can. It’s a story yet to be written, as we’re wasting an energy source.”

A second challenge is converting Waterloo’s plant into a regional treatment facility: “A study has been completed, and the project is feasible. We have the necessary land, and it’s the right thing to do. All the communities need to make system improvements.” The need now, he says, is to present the concept so that it makes sense to everybody.

Proud professional

Hoambrecker has ably served the profession and has received his share of honors in his four decades in the clean-water profession. Active in both the Water Environment Federation and American Water Works Association, he has been involved with operator certification, awards and conferences, and nominations. He’s a graduate of the Sioux City Leadership and the American Public Works Association’s Public Works Leadership Fellow program.

At Sioux City, his plant won the EPA Region 7 Beneficial Use of Biosolids Award. He received an award from the Iowa Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers for tree planting he did at a landfill to absorb pollutants from leachate. His yard waste and composting project at Sioux City received a Special Collection Excellence Award from the Solid Waste Association of North America.

He’s most proud of his induction into the Select Society of Sanitary Sludge Shovelers and the Hatfield Award. “My wife knew I was going to receive the Hatfield Award, but I didn’t,” he says. “She made arrangements for my three kids to be at the awards ceremony, along with two of my grandkids.

“It was a very special moment. There is no greater honor than being recognized by your peers.”

Early start

Steve Hoambrecker would advise any college student to decide on a course of study and then do everything at the university level to gain hands-on experience. That’s what he did at the University of Iowa.

“For me, success began by pursuing a career with an expected solid future — engineering,” he says. “At the university, engineering students had an option to obtain a job working at the university’s lime softening water treatment plant. I was fortunate to be one of those selected, and that further compelled me to enter the master’s program in environmental engineering. 

“At that time, Iowa City also hired students to perform laboratory tests. With my background, I became a part-time lab technician as well.” That, along with his engineering studies, helped him obtain his Professional Engineer credential and Iowa and Kansas Grade IV licenses in water and wastewater.

His studies also had something to do with his marriage. His master’s thesis was about anaerobic digestion of hog manure, which is plentiful in Iowa. “I needed to go down to the farm and collect manure and then concentrate it to feed the digester,” he says. He and his wife-to-be were dating at the time, and she would go along to help with the stinky task: “I guess she really loved me if she was willing to do that.”


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