The 2018 Arkansas Water Laboratory Professional of the Year Is Someone Her Supervisor Calls Indispensable

Mindi Dearing brings a marathoner’s drive and dedication to supervising the laboratory at the Beaver Water District in Arkansas.

The 2018 Arkansas Water Laboratory Professional of the Year Is Someone Her Supervisor Calls Indispensable

Mindi Dearing and Nikki Holloway, laboratory analyst, evaluate data from an ion chromatograph (Metrohm).

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Mindi Dearing never stops pushing the envelope.

Twenty-six years removed from her bachelor’s degree in biological science, she earned an MBA. Several years after taking up running for recreation, she completed a marathon.

Dearing brings that level of energy and determination to her job as laboratory supervisor for the Beaver Water District in Lowell, Arkansas. She leads a lab team in collecting and analyzing samples from plant process stages, finished water and source water from the 31,700-acre Beaver Lake.

Their work helps the water treatment plant team optimize processes, reduce chemical costs and produce water of sufficient quality to earn the Directors Award for five consecutive years from the Partnership for Safe Water. Accumulated data from the testing, stored in a laboratory information management system (limsExpress Plus by Dynamic Databases), enables district management to spot trends and make sound decisions about plant operations and investments for the future.

Dearing’s work has earned her the 2018 Water Laboratory Professional of the Year award from the Northwest District of the Arkansas Water Works & Water Environment Association.

“Mindi is indispensable,” says her supervisor, James McCarty, manager of environmental quality. “She is consistently one of our top employees because of her dedication to the district and its mission. Her personality is ideally suited to the job. She’s incredibly focused and well organized. She works well in a team environment because everybody recognizes her level of professionalism. She listens well and also knows how to take charge of a situation.”

Long lab history

The Beaver Water District is a wholesaler serving the cities of Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers and Bentonville, which supply on average 55 mgd of drinking water to more than 330,000 customers. The current water treatment capacity is 140 mgd. The water plant uses a conventional process with chlorine dioxide addition as a preoxidant.

Dearing started at the district in 2005 with an extensive laboratory background in the public and private sectors. A native of Enid, Oklahoma, she earned her bachelor’s degree from Oklahoma State University in 1993. While in school, she worked part-time at a private testing lab; she went to work there full-time after graduating and later became assistant lab manager. In 1998, she took a position as an environmental chemist with Oklahoma City, working at two water treatment plants. She became an American Water Works Association member and now wears a 20-year member pin.

Before applying for her job at the Beaver Water District, she showed the help wanted ad to her supervisor in Oklahoma City. “He said, ‘Mindi, did anybody ever tell you that you can’t write your own ad? It sounds just like you.’”

Certified lab

The district’s lab is state certified through the Department of Health to run total coliform and E. coli tests and can run samples for customer cities in case of boil orders. The lab is also certified by the Department of Environmental Quality for 20 general chemical and bacteriological parameters. In addition, the DEQ certification allows the lab to run some required parameters for the NPDES permit, including pH, total residual chlorine and TSS.

“We have lab coverage 365 days a year,” says Dearing, who holds Class IV water operator and Class IV water distribution licenses. “I think that demonstrates the district’s commitment to excellence and quality. People are used to operators staffing treatment plants every day, but not always the lab.

“I create a rotating weekend schedule for the entire year so staff members know which weekends and holidays they will work. They don’t have to stay all day, but they come in to read out and set up bacteriological samples and run required parameters like fluoride, chlorine dioxide and chlorite, as well as a select set of chemical parameters that are not required, but are useful for process control. That allows the operators on any shift to have current data at their disposal.”

The lab’s work includes watershed monitoring, covering a wide suite of analysis with special attention to total nitrogen and total phosphorus. “We extract a lot of chlorophyll-a samples to help gauge algae levels in the lake,” Dearing says. “The data can help us predict if a taste and odor event might be developing, if treatment changes should be made and if the frequency of sampling and analysis should increase.

“Increases in the abundance of algae trigger an increase in our cyanotoxin sampling protocol. Since that test is costly, we follow a minimal cyanotoxin sampling routine until we reach that trigger point.”

Equipped for performance

Dearing’s team includes Nikki Holloway, lab analyst, and Cindy Harp, lab technician. Environmental specialists Brad Hufhines and Matthew Rich primarily handle watershed monitoring, but also fill in shifts in the lab.

Dearing’s job includes making sure the lab has the equipment to meet current needs, prepare for emerging regulations and in some cases support wholesale customers. “We don’t have a lot of higher technological instruments,” Dearing says. “We have a TOC analyzer (Shimadzu Scientific Instruments) that’s important for monitoring precursors for disinfection byproducts. We have an ion chromatograph (Metrohm) for measuring fluoride, chloride, nitrate, nitrite and other parameters.

“We have a trihalomethane analyzer (Parker Hannifin Corp. - Instrumentation Products Division) that is not a certified instrument, but has been useful for helping our customers identify problem areas in their distribution systems. We are doing 27 samples a month for them just as a courtesy to help them see where they might need to do some flushing or check water age.

“We also provide some support with our customer cities’ field staffs, helping them calibrate and double-check the meters they have in the field to make sure they are accurate, as well as training them in sampling techniques.”

Dearing plays a key role in recommending new lab equipment and deciding when instruments need replacing. “Our managers take my recommendations,” she says. “I’ll always offer justification, such as that we’ll require less personnel time because this piece of equipment has an autosampler versus someone manually titrating. They respect my decisions and know I’m not wasteful in spending money.”

Simply dedicated

Dearing stays energized simply knowing her role’s importance: “The product we provide is for public health. We provide safe, clean drinking water, making sure that we comply with all the regulations. I feel the lab is a support group for other groups in the district, including water plant operations staff and our electrical and instrumentation staffs. It’s rewarding to know we’re helping and not just holed up in the laboratory.”

She keeps a close eye on new regulations and serves on the AWWA’s Emerging Water Quality Issues Committee. One such issue is the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR 4). “As a wholesaler, we don’t officially sample under that rule,” she says. “But our customer cities do, and some of their entry points are right in our plant. So I assist with reviewing their data and the EPA database and making sure the lab results look OK.”

Another timely topic is perfluorinated compounds, found in nonstick cookware, foam fire retardants and other common products. They are ubiquitous in the environment, and concern is rising about their potential health effects. Dearing sees it as part of her job to help the public understand the issue and keep the risks in the proper perspective.

“The greater the technology gets, and the lower the detection limits get and the lower the regulatory limits become,” Dearing says. “It’s a challenge predicting what the regulators will do and what to be prepared for. One thing that’s on my plate is creating fact sheets so that when we get calls on these issues, we have resources available to help educate the public.”

Lessons in leadership

Communication with her team also takes a high priority. The district has low staff turnover in part because of a family atmosphere, which Dearing tries to foster. “There are times when people want to do things differently, but we’ve always been able to overcome, and we’ve worked really well together.

“It’s important to understand the personalities of each individual and understand they all function differently. Over the years, I’ve learned to prepare my messages in multiple ways and deliver them in a manner that best fits each staff member.”

“It’s also about keeping things light. Occasionally I’ll say, ‘OK, we’re all going to have lunch together today.’ I also make sure my staff knows I always have an open door. I want them to come and tell me things. That is important because I’m pretty focused. I want them to know that while I might be walking fast, ‘It’s OK, you can talk to me.’”

One activity she enjoys is working on the annual AWWA Top Ops competition. She observed it at the AWWA Annual Conference & Exposition several years ago and with a few allies prodded the regional section (covering Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana) to get involved. “Now we have an annual competition at the section,” she says. “Last year we had four teams. The winner went on to ACE, and that happened to be our team from the Beaver Water District.”

This year’s Top Ops team includes plant operators Dustin Mayhew, Steven Caudle and Gabe Frost. Their coach, Holloway, took part for the first few years as a member of the team. Jesse Burch, operations supervisor, preceded her as coach.

Dearing, meanwhile, chairs the regional Top Ops committee and serves on the national Top Ops subcommittee. “I think it’s a great opportunity,” she says. “I tell employers who haven’t sent teams that it will benefit them because their people will study and learn things that will be good for the organization.” 

Bright future

While she rarely stands still, Dearing is content with her current role. She believes her MBA, completed last March at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, will make her more effective in areas from accounting and finance to leadership and people skills — and prepare her for a management position if the opportunity should arise.

“I appreciate the support I’ve had here,” she says. “I have the ability to do research, and since things are always changing, the work never gets boring or stagnant. I’m not just stuck here in the lab. I can get out and educate people, work with community groups and continue working on the technology, too.”

And after all, a career is not a sprint — it’s a marathon.

Going the distance

Earning an MBA is not the only example of Mindi Dearing pushing the limits. Several years ago, she completed a marathon.

“I’m always up for a challenge and like to push myself in various areas,” says Dearing, lab supervisor with the Beaver Water District in Lowell, Arkansas. “Eight or nine years ago, one of my family members had the crazy idea to run a 5K. It was the first time I’d ever really run in my life. I was always in sports, mainly basketball, but I had bad knees and never did distance running.

“I did my first 5K race, and then I got hooked. Some friends said, ‘Well, we run, too.’ If I’m running with somebody, I can do that. I didn’t enjoy it enough to run by myself. So I got into it, and then I said, ‘Well, I’m going to do my first half marathon.’ And I did.”

Then she entered a weekend challenge event that included a half marathon on Saturday and another on Sunday. “A couple of crazy friends talked me into doing that,” she recalls. “I got home and one of my boys said, ‘Mom, if you can do a marathon in two days, you can do a marathon in one day.’

“I’d never had the desire to do one; it was his encouragement that pushed me. I said, ‘You’re going to be there as my support and aid station.’ So I ran the Tulsa (Oklahoma) Route 66 Marathon in November 2015.”

She hasn’t run any more marathons, but she feels the experience has helped her. She still teaches classes in cycling, yoga and other fitness activities: “It’s another way I can help people, help them meet their goals. Now I’m going to shift gears and train my son for cross country.”


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