Setting Goals Reachable Through Hard Work. That's Lori Stenzel's Formula for Success.

Lori Stenzel doesn’t like to stand still in her professional life. She has grown in her career by constantly striving to do more.

Setting Goals Reachable Through Hard Work. That's Lori Stenzel's Formula for Success.

Operators rely on American Water’s HORIZON laboratory information management system (LIMS). Stenzel trained the water-quality team and operators on the system computers and software.

Wanting more has dominated Lori Stenzel’s professional life.

As senior water quality and environmental compliance specialist for Illinois American Water in Belleville, she has always set goals she could reach through hard work.

Stenzel combines her effervescent personality and a love of people with motivation to expand her influence and reputation nationwide. At a time when records were mostly on paper, she embraced computers, then trained people to use them and the management software.

Her dedication to the industry shows in the long list of offices she has held. Some current titles include 2018-19 chair of the Illinois Section American Water Works Association, 2019 president of the Southwest Central Water Plant Operators Association and secretary of the Southern Illinois Water Operators Association.

The Illinois Rural Water Association recognized Stenzel’s leadership and passion for protecting public drinking water with the 2011 Person of the Year award. In 2008, Illinois Section AWWA named Stenzel its Water Professional of the Year.

In 2019, Stenzel received the inaugural Women in Water - Outstanding Woman Award from the Illinois Section AWWA. It honors contributions to the advancement of women through outreach programs. “I was floored when they called my name,” Stenzel says. “I love helping people excel, especially when they are encouraged to see our industry as a promising future.”

Electronic leader

While earning her degree in biology from Augustana College, Stenzel dreamed of working in a crime scene investigation lab, but her first job was in 1987 as a chemist with an extraction lab, now owned by PDC Laboratories.

“I loved it, but soon I wanted more,” Stenzel says. Within four years, she was the drinking water project manager responsible for coordinating the paper-based testing schedules. Driven by her love of computers, Stenzel took the four Microsoft Access database management system courses at Illinois Central College, then built the lab’s drinking water management program.

To streamline the process and help plants remain compliant, Stenzel printed chain-of-custody forms and mailed them with sample bottles to some 200 state municipalities. All the operators had to do was fill the bottles, record the collection and relinquish date and times, and send the data to the Illinois EPA.

Stenzel’s job also included developing a marketing strategy to increase the private lab’s clientele. Her goal was to have more customers than the state lab, her company’s biggest competitor. She worked with Mark Mueller, director of McHenry Analytical Water Laboratory, to invent the GuardDog management program; then they built it using Microsoft Access.

“The idea was to guard plants against violations by dogging their operators until they submitted the samples,” Stenzel says. The $240 annual fee included a guarantee that no client would receive a notice of violation or miss a submission date. None ever did.

Help from an assistant

As clientele numbers rose, Stenzel received an assistant, Krystal Marks. “Her intense drive to learn and achieve made me feel insecure, until I realized that anyone can be a manager,” Stenzel says. “Krystal was pushing me to want more, and that was to be a teacher and a leader.”

Stenzel taught Marks about fluoride, then handed over the 350 clients requiring monthly fluoride tests. Marks was a quick study and loved computers. The match was perfect, and soon the sky was the limit. When Stenzel returned after a week’s vacation that year, it was as if she had never left. “Krystal did my job flawlessly and taught me that I could teach,” Stenzel says.

GuardDog increased the number of municipal users to 810, or 46% of the lab’s total business. Toward the end of 2010, Stenzel learned that Illinois American Water had an opening for a drinking water and wastewater compliance and reporting manager. Seeing an opportunity to learn the operator’s side of the industry, she applied for the position.

When offered the job in January 2011, Stenzel found a paper-based company. “Esther Dundore, the director and my boss at the time, tasked me with reducing paperwork,” she says. “I assured her I could do it.”

Although Stenzel’s responsibilities are similar to those at PDC, they are on a smaller scale. She manages scheduling and compliance for 43 state districts run by regional water quality supervisors and assembles data for their consumer confidence reports. She troubleshoots issues and schedules extra testing at American Water’s Central Laboratory when operators have treatment problems.

Empowering others

However, there was a problem: Stenzel automated her job so well that she felt as if she were coasting. Wanting more, she jumped into learning all of American Water’s HORIZON laboratory information management system (LIMS).

Then she trained the water-quality team and operators on the computers and software. When many struggled to upload their Bacti (total coliform/bacteriological) files, Stenzel eased them over their difficulties. Corporate rewarded her initiative by naming her the nationwide Bacti information technology person.

“I love finding solutions for people and making their jobs easier,” Stenzel says. “I retain my Bacti certification to run samples if any of our labs need help or we have a crisis requiring extra hands.”

With time available, Stenzel began pursuing a Class A (highest) Operator in Training certificate and became more involved with the Illinois Section AWWA, advancing from District 4 trustee to chair and now past chair.

She worked with the Midstate Water Plant Operators Group, Illinois Rural Water Association, and Southern Illinois Water Operators Association to make sure operators had continuing education. She also helped organize training sessions and spoke on topics essential to their jobs. “Staying involved in the local water operator associations is key to keeping communications open and knowing what is going on in their plants,” Stenzel says.

Operators weren’t the only people to benefit from their memberships. At the 2019 Illinois Section AWWA conference, Stenzel’s life changed. Keynote speaker Thanet Natisri, who oversaw the 2018 cave rescue in Thailand, said, “Opportunities are not a given, they are created, and timing is everything.” Stenzel seized the nugget and applied it.

She attended a water quality summit of Midwestern states in 2019 and met people developing a Bacti app. Stenzel told them, “You need a liaison between the lab and the states to provide the expertise and training. I am that person.” In July, she filled the position she had created.

Shades of gray

Avoiding violations is paramount in Stenzel’s world, and she does it with straightforward communication and a strong working relationship with the Illinois EPA Compliance Assurance Section: “If you explain a situation honestly and ask for suggestions to solve it, regulators will work with you. They have your back because they want to avoid the mountain of paperwork associated with writing violations.”

For example, an American Water plant was upgrading to a carbon system just when its three-year volatile water sample was due. The sample contained styrene. A second sample confirmed the first. A third sample pulled two weeks later was clean. Stenzel explained the situation to Andrea Rhodes of the Compliance Assurance Section, Public Water Supplies, at the Illinois EPA.

“Andrea told me that if I had called, she would have moved the three-year cycle,” Stenzel says. “Now I tell operators never to sample during plant upgrades. Make that phone call and request moving the sample to next year.” The contamination came from PVC weld solvents.

Stenzel avoided another violation when the state went to Stage 2 Disinfectants and Disinfection Byproducts Rules. Illinois monitored quarterly for the first year. A groundwater system operator did his first set of tests in December but forgot to sample in March.

When Stenzel looked at the LIMS to check compliance, a sample showed for the plant, but seeing the acquisition date required scrolling down the page. Stenzel and the regional water quality supervisor missed it. With only one sample recorded, the plant was in violation.

In an email to the Illinois EPA, Stenzel documented what had happened and the corrective action she would take. She also emailed a copy of the federal rules stating that groundwater systems of this type met the criteria for a waiver. She requested one and regulators moved the annual monitoring date to June of that year.

“This didn’t happen because we were friends,” Stenzel says. “It happened because I had facts and documentation. Furthermore, as long as humans are involved, errors will occur, but they are often fixable if caught early enough.”

Reaching the young

Always looking for ways to promote the water and wastewater industries, Stenzel found the perfect vehicle serving on the Illinois Section AWWA Outreach Committee. In 2015, the association received a grant to expand its Water Saver in a Box Classroom Toolbox.

It teaches the value of water and simple conservation methods in a fun and informative way to third through fifth graders.

Stenzel joined the subcommittee and named the toolbox Bridging the Gap, “as in the gap between students and operators. Our toolbox enables youngsters to build a sand filtration system as a classroom project.”

The team designed the box to hold materials for the filter, assembly instructions, a jump drive with worksheets and lesson plans, toilet leak detection tablets and a water conservation wheel. “Ideally, the local water operator presents the customized PowerPoint on how his water system works, but teachers can also do it,” Stenzel says. The toolkit was well received.

The Illinois American Water Mobile Education Center garnered more favorable reviews. Launched in 2014, it’s an 18-foot custom-remodeled concession trailer that provides a platform for youth and adults to learn about the water industry. Videos, demonstrations and hands-on activities teach the water cycle, water quality, water conservation and the value of water.

In 2015, the Mobile Education Center won the Illinois Section AWWA Outreach Award and second place in the National Association of Water Companies Management Innovation Awards.

Stenzel is closing fast on earning her Class A water operator certification, but another goal already dangles in the distance. “I want to become an AWWA officer and continue my passion on the national level,” she says.

For inspiration, Stenzel refers to a quotation on her office wall by motivational speaker Zig Ziglar: “Your smile is your logo. Your personality is your business card. How you leave others feeling after having an experience with you becomes your trademark.”

Future gifts

Lori Stenzel sees the Illinois EPA Operator in Training course as a way to offset the approaching “silver tsunami” by offering disadvantaged kids the chance at a positive future. “Graduates have marketable skills and can replace retiring water and wastewater operators,” says Stenzel, a senior water quality and environmental compliance specialist for Illinois American Water.

Besides promoting the course through the Illinois Section American Water Works Association Outreach Committee and at speaking engagements, Stenzel wants to launch a pilot program in southern Illinois. “That area lacks job opportunities for those without a college degree,” she says. “The best way to attract applicants is to explain about the doors that will open if they enter this industry straight out of high school.”

The online self-study course prepares students for the Illinois EPA Class D operator exam. The Illinois Section AWWA also arranges for internships at water plants and has a scholarship program. “If students meet all the criteria, their tuition will be refunded,” Stenzel says.

Finding champions is challenging. Stenzel coordinates with Casey Johnson, Anna-Jonesboro Water Commission superintendent, to provide plant training in southern Illinois. Johnson’s wife is trying to incorporate the course into the senior curriculum at the school where she works. To open the door even wider, Stenzel will sponsor Illinois Section AWWA student memberships to those who enroll.

“Now all we need is for everyone to say yes,” she says.


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