Frequent Job Changes Provide Solid Foundation for Senior Operator’s Career Advancement

A series of positions at plants with different processes gave Garon Goularte a solid foundation for steady advancement is his career.

Frequent Job Changes Provide Solid Foundation for Senior Operator’s Career Advancement

Mixed liquor return pumps recirculate nitrate as part of the denitrification process at the South County Regional Wastewater Authority in Gilroy, California.

For Garon Goularte, frequent job changes have been a good thing.

In moving from one California facility to the next and gradually stepping up the operator ranks, Goularte has been exposed to multiple processes, each with its own challenges and with duties that encompass lab work, plant operations, water distribution, maintenance and leadership.

Now, as a senior operator with Monterey One Water, he’s excited to play a role in running a brand-new advanced water recycling plant that yields water for indirect potable reuse by introduction to the groundwater.

Goularte earned the 2019 Operator of the Year award from the California Water Environment Association while in his previous position as chief plant operator and operations supervisor with JACOBS at the South County Regional Wastewater Authority in Gilroy. He took his current position in January 2019.

He’s grateful for his wide variety of challenges during just 14 years in the water profession. “It gives me this large toolbox I can draw from when I encounter something I’m not familiar with,” he says. “I may not know all the fine details, but it’s not going to be a complete surprise. I can draw from a larger repertoire than someone who has been at just one facility for a long time. It doesn’t make me better than anyone else, but it makes me more comfortable and maybe a little bit more confident.”

Changing direction

Goularte grew up in Hollister, about 45 minutes south of San Jose. He earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from San Diego State University and enrolled in graduate school. Not wanting to attend graduate school in that field, he started working toward a teacher credential at San Jose State University. Then fortune intervened.

“A good old friend, Jose Rodriguez, was in the water industry, and one day I went to see him at the facility where he was working,” Goularte recalls. “I was intrigued by it. The activated sludge process, the biology of it, was fascinating. The more I asked, the more he answered. He told me about the industry, how you could excel at your own rate if you were motivated and driven. It seemed like a good career path.”

Rodriguez is now assistant plant manager with Veolia at the Hollister Water Reclamation Facility but then was working in operations for Bracewell Engineering. Goularte tried to land a job with the company and finally did so after earning a Grade I water distribution license on his own initiative: “They saw potential in me, took a chance and hired me.”

He started by maintaining well sites and pump houses for small-community water systems. After earning a T2 water treatment license, he moved up to operating small water treatment plants. Eventually he became a wastewater treatment operator-in-training and gained Grade I wastewater operator certification: “So then I was operating water treatment, wastewater treatment and water distribution facilities for Bracewell Engineering.”

After about 2 1/2 years with that company, he moved to the Hollister facility, which had just replaced a lagoon system with a membrane bioreactor plant (4 mgd design, 2.5 mgd average) built by HydroScience Engineers under a design-build-operate contract. He worked there as an operator employed by HydroScience. Two years later, Veolia took over the operations contract; Goularte earned his Grade III wastewater operator license and stayed until 2013.

Stepping up

His next stop was with the operations arm of CH2M Hill (now JACOBS) at the South County authority, where he continued learning and growing. The treatment facility (8.5 mgd design, 6 mgd average) had an activated sludge extended aeration process in an oxidation ditch.

The facility treated wastewater to Title 22 reclaim standards and piped the water throughout the community for landscape and golf course irrigation, to some industries for wash water and to a small power plant for cooling. While there, Goularte served as site safety coordinator and as a stormwater committee member. He earned his Grade V wastewater operator license in 2018.

Then came the opportunity at Monterey One Water and its wastewater treatment and recycling facility (29.6 mgd design, 18 mgd average), with a variety of processes new to him. Wastewater from three interceptor sewers passes through two bar rakes (Duperon), two grit channels and two Gritt Mitt grit classifiers (WesTech Engineering).

After five primary clarifiers, the flow proceeds to six trickling filter towers (two BioDoc by WesTech Engineering and four Envirex by Evoqua Water Technologies) and then to a bioflocculation basin, similar to an activated sludge extended aeration basin, with fine-bubble aerators and APG-Neuros NX200 turbo blowers with diffused aeration sparging system for distribution.

The water then flows to six secondary clarifiers. A portion of the clarifier effluent (seasonally variable) is discharged to a Pacific Ocean outfall. The rest goes to flocculation basins where aluminum chlorhydrate polymer is added before treatment in anthracite/sand filters, chlorination and discharge to a storage pond that supplies the water to the Salinas Valley Reclamation Project for farmland irrigation.

On the solids side, primary sludge is pumped to a gravity thickener and then to four anaerobic digesters; waste activated sludge is thickened in a dissolved air flotation thickener unit (drive and mechanicals from Evoqua Water Technologies; air and water dissolution system from World Water Works) and sent to the digesters. Biosolids are dewatered on two screw presses (FKC) to 16% to 17% solids and further dewatered to 50% to 70% solids in drying beds and sent to landfill.

Biogas from the digesters fuels a combined heat and power system with three engine-generators (Cooper Superior), each with 580-kW capacity, that supply the majority of the facility’s power. Engine heat is captured from exhaust and jacket water and is used to heat the digesters. A solar energy installation (SolarCity) is designed to supply all power for the Salinas Valley Reclamation Project facility.

Taking the challenge

Throughout his career, Goularte has been fascinated by the activated sludge process. “The bacteria are living organisms, and any small thing can throw off their biology,” he says. “It could be a shock load from a septic hauler dumping something too acidic or alkaline. At higher temperatures, the bugs are more active and the oxygen transfer is a little less efficient, so you need to have more oxygen available in summer.

“You have to do microorganism examination and monitor your sludge age to make sure the filamentous don’t become too abundant and cause foaming issues. Coming into this career, I thought it was all about pumps, motors and chemicals. But it’s bacteria that do all the work, and the machinery provides the environment for the bacteria to treat the wastewater. To me, it’s very exciting and amazing.”

To help him master the process, Goularte took advantage of the Sacramento State University books; various training sessions, webinars and videos from the California Water Environment Association and the American Water Works Association; and studies to prepare for higher certifications. Naturally, he also learned by doing.

“You can read about it all you want,” he says, “but when you get in there and do the sampling, the testing, and the microscopic exams, that’s where you really learn about it. Since I started small and worked my way up, I’ve had sampling and lab experience.”

A new challenge

Recently, in pursuing California’s new advanced water treatment certification, he has researched UV disinfection, advanced oxidation processes and membrane filtration technologies. In large part, that’s in preparation for helping operate a new treatment facility for the Pure Water Monterey groundwater replenishment project.

That facility, commissioned in late 2019, uses membrane filtration, reverse osmosis, oxidation with hydrogen peroxide and UV disinfection to treat secondary effluent for percolation into the groundwater basin. Goularte and operator colleague David Bradley were responsible for startup and commissioning of the facility, which the Monterey One Water operations team will run and maintain.

With the addition of the new plant, there are now three product streams: secondary effluent discharged to the ocean outfall, Title 22 reclaim water for Salinas Valley Reclamation Project or the Castroville Seawater Intrusion Project, and water for indirect potable reuse.

Learning and leading

On his journey, Goularte has enjoyed a number of mentors, most notably Rodriguez: “He was instrumental to my growth in this industry. He was the first mentor I had, and I still consider him as such to this day. He helped mold and develop me in our first seven years working together. We had countless after-work conversations about process control management and systematic improvements that we could engineer and implement.

“We pushed each other to learn and climb in certification grade levels. We were our own little think tank at Bracewell Engineering, and then the Hollister facility, doing everything we could to make the plant and ourselves the best they could be.

Also influential was John Hernandez, maintenance supervisor with the South County authority: “He was a wealth of knowledge, an all-around great personality, very cerebral and a lead-by-example guy.” Another was Chris Vasquez of CH2M Hill, who was operations supervisor at South County authority when Goularte was lead operator there: “I learned a lot of process from him — different techniques, different tests that I hadn’t seen before.”

Their influence helped Goularte develop his approach to leadership while at South County authority. Some of his team members were new to the wastewater industry; they had owned businesses such as carpet cleaning and pest control; one had worked in a cheese factory.

“All of them, they were hungry,” Goularte says. “They wanted to learn and grow. When they started at the facility, they were operators in training. Now several are Grades 4 and 5; others are Grade 3. I got to see all of them excel. Part of that made me better because I got to work with them and teach them. That made me want to learn more and share my knowledge. I used to tell them, ‘My job is to make you better than me, because then you make my job easier.’”

Now he’s content to be back in the operator ranks. “Even as a leader, the guys would tease me because I’d still be out there shoveling sludge. They’d say, ‘Aren’t you supposed to be in the office?’ I’d say, ‘I’ve got to get some daylight. I’ve got to keep working with my hands.’ I didn’t want to be disconnected. I made sure I stayed on top of things in the facility. Now being back as an operator, I’m out in the sunshine again, getting my hands dirty. It’s refreshing. I like it.”

Looking forward

Looking ahead, Goularte aspires to more growth in knowledge and responsibility. “You look at life and anything that’s stagnant usually doesn’t do well,” he says. “That’s a metaphor I like to use. If a pond sits stagnant, it goes bad. The same is true for people and careers.

“I would like to keep climbing. We have the new advanced water purification facility in Monterey. I’m excited to be working with that.

“This career is exciting. I enjoy it. I’ve loved everyone I worked with.”

Tip of the Day

While serving as chief plant operator at the South County Regional Wastewater Authority in California, Garon Goularte was charged with grooming new members of his team. Along the way, he developed a teaching tool he called the Tip of the Day.

After the daily morning meeting of the maintenance and operation crews, he would pull the operators into the SCADA control room. Each day brought a different lesson. “I would go over process changes we were making and what results we expected to see,” Goularte recalls.  

“Since some of them were operators in training, I would go over basics such as nitrification and denitrification — what the process was, what the effects were. Sometimes I was on call after hours. If we had a problem overnight, that would be my teaching point the next morning. I might say, ‘We had a chlorine pump go down, we saw this effect in the contact basin, and here’s how we took care of it.’”

He also shared with his team issues involving customers of the authority’s reclaimed water system. “Even though maybe I talked about some things that were a little over their heads for where they were in their careers, at least they could take a little bit away and feel somewhat familiar when they faced a similar situation.

“It made me grow and be sharper, too, because I had to make sure what I was telling them was correct. I’d research different processes and say, ‘We’re going to try this, here is why, and this is what the research says.’ Then in our process meetings, we’d discuss how it worked or why it didn’t work. Everybody would grow from that.”


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