Jeremy Carnahan Took to Wastewater Work With a Natural Fascination for Its Mechanics and Importance

Jeremy Carnahan immediately took to the clean-water profession. His enthusiasm has only increased as he worked his way up the ladder.

Jeremy Carnahan Took to Wastewater Work With a Natural Fascination for Its Mechanics and Importance

Jeremy Carnahan enjoys challenges and finding solutions to tough problems, especially when they involve brainstorming and feedback from his team.

A simple description for Jeremy Carnahan is that he’s a natural.

His exposure to wastewater and sanitation began during Army tours of duty in Iraq. He was “voluntold” (as he puts it) to handle the construction of sanitation structures for field operations and support personnel.

For Carnahan, it was love at first latrine dig. These days, as operations supervisor with the Pierce County (Washington) Planning and Public Works Sewer Division, he takes every opportunity to further his education in wastewater and process management. He also facilitates education and conversation about the challenges facing the industry.

Really digging it

Carnahan took to wastewater work with a natural fascination for the mechanics and the importance of it. Throughout his tours in Iraq, he was consistently promoted to greater responsibility for managing sanitation construction projects.

Upon discharge in 2006, wanting a career in wastewater infrastructure, he entered the industry in the private sector with R/S Construction and Excavation, installing underground utilities, building lift stations, installing waterlines and sewer lines, and operating a sewer cleaning and vacuum truck. The work included pumping septic tanks, clean-outs and manholes. It all solidified his desire to become more deeply involved in the field.

After finding himself a single parent, in May 2015 he shifted to a position with the City of Puyallup Wastewater Treatment Plant with an extended aeration activated sludge design (14 mgd design, 6 mgd average). This career move offered more stable hours to give him the family time he now needed. The job included a mixed bag of tasks: grounds maintenance, pressure washing, basin cleaning and others. “As soon as I started that job, I loved it,” Carnahan says, “I don’t know what it was that clicked for me to pick up the information so quickly, but I immediately saw the math and the biology and became hungry to learn more.”

Back to school

That was the start of his rapid rise. His fresh perspective and eagerness to learn led him to constantly question experienced operators. “I was just a sponge for information, asking questions almost to the point of annoying my supervisor. He encouraged me to investigate a degree program in wastewater offered at the local community Green River College.

“I was excited I could get a formal education using my GI Bill in a field I loved, but it was scary, too.” It meant working and going to school full-time, a challenge for the father of young children. “I had to weigh whether it was worth the sacrifice. It only took me two quarters of school to see that it was definitely worth it. That made me love this industry much more.”

He has earned associate degrees in wastewater management and water distribution and is working toward a bachelor’s degree in applied management. His superiors, seeing his commitment and leadership ability, quickly promoted him as he progressed in education and operator certification. While at the Puyallup plant, he operated a biological nutrient removal process; that made him an excellent candidate for a position with Pierce County in August 2018 at the Chambers Creek and Cascadia facilities.

Embracing technology

Carnahan admits to being a technology geek and an early adopter, always seeking the latest solutions and processes that can make a system better. His acceptance of the Pierce County position was due largely to the agency’s cutting-edge technology, which included an anaerobic ammonium oxidation, or anammox, system and a membrane bioreactor.

“The opportunity to gain firsthand experience working with these processes was intriguing,” Carnahan says. “Pierce County’s Chambers Creek Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant is the only plant in the Northwest and one of only two in the nation with the anammox system, so I had to jump on it.”   

After six months as an operator level II at Chambers Creek (44 mgd design, 16 mgd average), Carnahan was promoted to operator level III. Almost exactly a year from the day he was hired, he earned a promotion to supervisor. He was excited about the increase in responsibility and the potential as a leader to create a positive impact on his work group. 

Carnahan prefers to work hands-on whenever possible. He enjoys being in the thick of it when something has gone amiss and requires a mess to clean up or a solution to a tough problem that involves brainstorming and feedback. He also appreciates overseeing processes and leading a highly skilled group of professionals working to protect the environment and public health at both the Chambers Creek and Cascadia facilities.

Mix it up, make it better

Shedding the military imperative to follow orders without question, Carnahan came to civilian life with determination to question the status quo. He admits that one of his pet peeves is hearing, “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”

And that is why he enjoys his work at Pierce County: The organization is extremely forward-thinking in its approach and culture. That organizational mindset makes Carnahan comfortable encouraging his team to examine “why” and “how” and to consider whether they are doing things the best way.

The key members on his team of 15 are lead operators Derek Sobczak, Todd Carlson, Roland Randolph and Dennis Cossett; Aaron Jones, operator in training; and Amanda Tobin, lab analyst.

Being responsible for process control and being a key member of complex projects like implementing a pilot BNR study, Carnahan makes sure his team is fully engaged instead of performing tasks by habit. “My role as a supervisor to this group of very knowledgeable operators is to help them understand why we’re doing what we do or why I’ve made the decisions I’ve made,” he says.

His draws his management philosophy from his favorite quotes of business magnate Richard Branson: Train people well enough to leave, but treat them well enough that they want to stay. Carnahan observes, “I want to give my team all the tools they need to be an awesome operator anywhere, but when that door opens, they’ll have to think about whether or not leaving here would be better for them.”

Doing the math

Carnahan believes education and having a relationship with “the numbers” are keys to an operator’s success and career advancement. For many, math and science can be challenging, but Carnahan believes that can be overcome by connecting the numbers on paper with what happens in the process. He attributes his career rise partly to his nurturing relationship with the numbers.

To foster consistent team engagement, weigh-in and buy-in, Carnahan emphatically supports communication and the sharing of ideas. He saw that when large groups were brought together, there were volumes of opinions. He is less concerned with reaching people than with getting people talking, playing devil’s advocate if necessary and encouraging productive conversation.

As part of the team in charge of setting BNR pilot study objectives, Carnahan recalls, “I would spur on dialogue with the team to get them talking and sharing their perspectives. By doing this, we got everyone active in the problem-solving process.”   

Carnahan also encourages active participation and communication to solve common problems beyond his own plant: “When it comes to process control and treatment plants, there are a million ways to go about things because there are a million variables inside the plant and an equal number of ways to make it work based on your own perspective. It is critical to understand other people’s perspectives. That takes education and outreach.”

Bridging the gap

Carnahan’s military background helped make him a natural leader. He has a talent for reading and understanding different personalities and knowing how to work with the differences. He shifts communication and training approaches to fit the individual instead of using a single management style or method.

He stresses asking questions to understand others’ perspectives and gain clarity. That is especially helpful when working with a multigenerational team. “When we listen to respond instead of listening to understand, nothing happens,” he says. Bridging communication between older team members and younger recruits is a priority for preparing his agency for the future.

“Our industry as a whole is looking to change our culture for the better,” Carnahan says, “We may not know precisely what that will look like, and it may take generations to get there. But if we continue to educate our community, develop our workforce, build trust, listen, and encourage transparent, honest and open communication, we’ll get where we need to be.”  


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