Amazement With the Miracle of Treatment Brought Clifford Creeks Jr. Into the Profession

Clifford Creeks Jr. quickly developed a passion for wastewater treatment. Now he puts it to work daily and tries to impart it to a new generation.

Amazement With the Miracle of Treatment Brought Clifford Creeks Jr. Into the Profession

Clifford Creeks Jr., supervisor IV/operations, Central Wastewater Treatment Plant, Dallas Water Utilities

It’s been 23 years since Clifford Creeks Jr. traveled the short distance, just five minutes from where he grew up, to the Central Wastewater Treatment Plant in Dallas.

“I played and practiced little league football across the street from here, and I never knew what the plant was until I came here for the job interview,” he recalls. Creeks understood there’s no “new” water in the world, but like many others, “I was blown away by what happens here to turn wastewater into clean water.”

By the time he was hired as an apprentice operator at the Dallas Water Utilities’ Central plant in 1996, the facility had been in operation for 81 years. When it came online in 1915, treatment consisted of a couple of clarifiers that discharged to the Trinity River, still the plant’s receiving stream. The population it served then was about 100,000. Today it serves some 1.3 million. Creeks is now supervisor IV/operations at the plant (170 mgd design, 100 mgd average).

The bad old days

In the early 20th century, there was public debate over whether wastewater treatment was even necessary. It had been only about 60 years since Lord John Snow in London confirmed the relationship between cholera and drinking water contaminated by human waste.

Many still believed diseases like cholera were caused by “bad air.” An article in the Journal of Urban Technology says that in 1924, 88% of people in U.S. cities with populations of more than 100,000 simply dumped their untreated wastes into the nearest waterway. Dallas was ahead of its time with a wastewater treatment plant.

Still, Creeks chuckles as he recalls, “Even in my lifetime we weren’t disinfecting with chlorine.” Now Dallas has two wastewater treatment plants with a combined capacity of 310 mgd. The other plant is 140 mgd design, 60 mgd average. 

Long road to travel

It took Creeks awhile to come to his current profession. After he graduated from high school, he went to college for a year at El Centro College in Dallas for general studies with hopes of earning an engineering degree. Then he joined the Marine Corps. He’d wanted to be an electrician, “But you have to be real specific with recruiters.”

After basic training he went to what’s called A School where he learned basic electricity. Then his commanding officer called Creeks and a colleague into his office and told them he needed two Marines to go to aviation air conditioning mechanic and electrician school and then to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan.

Creeks spent a year there and was then assigned to Marine Corps Air Station El Toro in California, the base used for several scenes in the 1996 film Independence Day. While at El Toro (which closed in 1999), he wrangled an additional six-month temporary duty assignment back at Iwakuni.

While in the Marines, Creeks earned general education college credits through Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, California, despite the rigors of military life. He left the Marine Corps as a corporal when his enlistment expired in 1990 and returned to Dallas. He worked there for five years in hotel maintenance as an air conditioning mechanic and electrician, but he felt something was missing.

“I started looking around and saw an opening with the City of Dallas,” he recalls. “I got on here as an apprentice operator. That’s the entry-level position. You have to get a D wastewater license (lowest) by the end of your six-month probation period. After that, you have a year to obtain your C license to retain your position. You can stay at that C level until you retire, but you’ll need an advanced license to get promoted.”

Always improving

Today Creeks holds a Class A wastewater operator license. He reports to the assistant plant manager for operations, who reports to the plant manager. Five supervisors and 30 operators and apprentice operators report to Creeks. Along the way, he earned an associate of arts and science degree at Richland Community College in the Dallas metroplex area, using college credits earned in the Marines and others earned locally.

In his 23 years with the Dallas utilities, Creeks has seen many changes and improvements. The city is now engaged in a Lean Six Sigma program that depends on data and statistical analysis to improve processes and save money. One project he’s working on is electronically collecting and using operations data with digital tablets. He wants operators to stop collecting data on paper operator logs and transferring that data somewhere else, because data on paper logs is nearly useless and transcription errors can creep in.

Consultants and others have periodically asked for 10 years of data on one process or another. He takes them to a room full of boxes of paper operator logs and says, “Have at it. Just bring the boxes back when you’re through copying the log sheets.” The aim of the Lean Six Sigma approach is to make everything in operations run more efficiently by using data to make decisions. “We’re working toward data integration,” Creeks says.

Teaching the young

Experience and a thorough understanding of the processes still have a place in his world. “When I was hired on, there were operators who could listen to and smell the plant and tell you how it’s operating,” he says. “They could tell you how to set your wasting, and they could look at an aeration basin and tell you the RAS (return activated sludge) pump was off and you needed to go turn it on.” 

He’s concerned about the work ethic of millennials coming into the workforce: “They don’t take pride in their work; it’s just a job to them. But it’s not. It’s so much more.” He notes that they’re good at pushing buttons “and can run the plant with their phones,” but they need to understand what happens after they push the buttons and who they affect downstream.

“You can’t work here for any length of time and not be excited about what’s going on in these tanks,” Creeks says. That’s one reason he volunteered to teach the professional wastewater skills courses the utility provides to help operators get and maintain their licenses. He took two 40-hour courses to learn how to teach before he stepped into the classroom: “The courses taught me how to put together a lesson plan on anything.”

His drive to impart his passion for the profession motivates him: “We have to fight against smartphones that make our kids dumb. I didn’t want to stand up there sounding like the teacher in the Charlie Brown cartoons: Wa-wa, wa-wa, wa-wa. The instruction was geared to being able to instill and communicate the knowledge, not just possess it.

“Wastewater is alive and interesting; it’s fascinating. What goes on in the plant is not the same as in the textbook. But don’t forget the textbook either.”

Earning recognition

Creeks is proud of a 2-year-old program with the utility, Southern Methodist University, and the AECOM engineering firm. Three-student teams work with AECOM to provide the utility with a workable solution or improvement to a real process problem. The students do the work from start to finish.

Utility personnel see presentations during the project and critically advise the students. In the end, the students get a grade and real-world experience, the utility gets the project and Creeks gets his payoff later when those students show up working for some of the same engineering firms he has worked with for years. “I feel like I’ve had a hand in giving them a taste of the real world,” he says.

His peers recognized his drive to teach others to be as excited about wastewater as he is. Two years ago, they presented him with the Water Environment Association of Texas Operator of the Year award. They nominated him for the Water Environment Federation’s William D. Hatfield Award last year. “I looked at the requirements and I didn’t think I’d get it,” he says. But he did.

One of the Hatfield award criteria is a good public relations program. “We have to work hard to reach out to the public,” Creeks says. “When we have tours, we ask the kids what they want to be. I work hard to let them know that whatever they want to be, we probably have it right here.

“You can’t work here without being blown away by what’s happening. We have to work harder to market wastewater as a profession.” That’s the only way to attract new people — and start them on the journey for a lifetime.

A teachable moment

Clifford Creeks Jr.’s passion for teaching others about wastewater treatment extends to his home and his off-duty time as well. He recently gave a houseguest a lesson about what should and should not go down the drain.

His 66-year-old houseguest was cooking dinner. When the ground beef was done, she was about to pour the liquid down the drain, but Creeks stopped her. She said, “It’s just water.” He said, “No, there’s grease in there.”

His guest said she hadn’t used any grease in cooking the meat. Creeks said, “Let me show you something.” He got a glass jar and poured off the liquid from the pan. “If you pour this liquid down the sink, it just goes down the drain and sets up. Pretty soon, you have a mess.”

As the grease congealed in the jar, his guest exclaimed, “Well, I’ll be. I never knew that.” Creeks replied that he and his colleagues work every day to educate the public about what they put down the drain: “It’s a big part of what our pretreatment people do when they go out to restaurants and conduct their public outreach events.”


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