For Ted Meckes, the Career Was Not About Larger Communities, Bigger Plants or Higher-Powered Jobs

Ted Meckes didn’t have to look far to find his career. He’s right at home as the award-winning water division manager in Springfield, Illinois.

For Ted Meckes, the Career Was Not About Larger Communities, Bigger Plants or Higher-Powered Jobs

Ted Meckes is a 2019 winner of the George Warren Fuller Award from the Illinois Section AWWA.

When Ted Meckes graduated from college, he found a job with the water utility in his hometown of Springfield, Illinois.

He never left in search of a larger community, bigger plant or higher-powered job: He found ample challenges and opportunities where he was. Growing up, he had all the earmarks of an engineer: “I always tried to take my dad’s lawn mower apart and put it back together — and my bicycle,” says Meckes, water division manager for City Water, Light & Power in Springfield.

His choice of college and career began with a visit to Marquette University in Milwaukee, where his older brother Dan was a student, as were friends and his sister Jane. He liked the smaller classes of 12 to 15 students, which allowed lots of interaction with professors and time for experiments.

“There was plenty of theory, but lots of hands-on work, such as building a toothpick bridge to test the strength of materials,” Meckes says. He graduated in 1986 and applied for every job imaginable. Back home in Springfield, he learned of an opening at the water plant. He had done a little work in college with pumps and pump curves; he toured the plant and was offered the job of plant engineer. He took it.

From time to time, he looked at other positions in other places. “I tend to not make changes and to be very cautious,” he says. “But it’s a trait that has worked well for me. You’re not going to get rich working for a municipality, but they have a good retirement system.”

Surface watershed

Springfield draws its source water from Lake Springfield on the city’s southeast side. Drum screens with an air burst system (Aqseptence Group, Inc. - Johnson Screens) remove debris, and six low-service pumps (Pentair Fairbanks Nijhuis) move water to the head of the gravity-fed system.

Ferric sulfate and polymer are added to form floc, and lime is added for softening. Five upflow clarifiers remove solids; three of those were converted to ClariCones solids contact clarifiers (McDermott), while the other two are inverted cones. Carbon dioxide is added to adjust pH, and phosphate is added for stabilization, followed by fluoride. Polishing is done in 12 standard gravel-sand-anthracite filters.

In the late 1980s, the utility formed a watershed committee that includes several farmer participants. The city recently received grants of more than $1.3 million through the U.S. Department of Agriculture to finance alternative farming techniques. The largest share, more than $1 million from the USDA’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program, has a 50% local match but allows in-kind contributions; that has made it much easier to find partners.

“We’re asking these farmers to take land out of production,” Meckes says. “We know this is their livelihood.” Some farmers already use techniques such as no till or strip tilling. The city wants to use the money as an incentive for others who worry about the cost of new practices: They need help to see that better farming helps the environment and their bottom line.

Meckes oversees a staff of 93 divided under Dan Brill, supervisor of land and water resources; Todd LaFountain, general superintendent of water treatment; Mike Johnson, general superintendent of water distribution and engineering; and Larry Rockford, superintendent of property services.

Building redundancy

Early in his career, as plant engineer, Meckes was in charge of maintenance, and one change he made was to make sure there was a large stock of spare parts. He followed the same strategy with equipment.

“When I started, we had one of each, and by the time I left, we had two to three of each so we didn’t have to be shutdown because, for example, a chlorine evaporator was down. We had two of them, so we’d just bypass one and fix it the next day. One thing I really strive for is to get redundancy in our system. As I tell our electric people, ‘I can’t buy water off the grid.’”

He moved through the engineer ranks and then became assistant plant superintendent in 2000. When the superintendent retired in 2004, he applied for that job. Then the water division manager job opened.

“I’ve always been a person who wanted to a leader,” Meckes says. And I felt I could do best for the entire department as the water division manager rather than just as superintendent. “I want to work hard, and I think that’s what a true leader is: someone of whom people say, ‘The guy puts time in. He’s not afraid to come in early, stay late.”

He has friends who became orthodontists and dentists; they have time to play golf three days a week. “But I enjoy what I do,” Meckes says. “I have passion about it. I’m happy with the career choices I made once I became an engineer.”

Another task earlier in his career was public education, and there he learned another lesson that can be applied anywhere. He considers it a simple truth that to change an adult’s mind, talk to their child.

One friend got a lesson from his son, who was in a class Meckes talked to at school. The friend reported, “I was brushing my teeth. My son walks in and says, ‘Turn the water off: You’re wasting water. Mr. Meckes taught us that.’ To this day, I turn the water off while I brush my teeth.”

Career highlight

In 2019, the Illinois Section AWWA recognized Meckes’ career with the George Warren Fuller Award. “To be put in the same place as some of the people who have received that award is an honor,” he says. “And I couldn’t have done it without my past supervisors, past bosses, past employees and current people.” 

One feature of people in the water industry is they don’t compete with each other, and that makes them very willing to help, Meckes says. Over the years, he has built a network of people he can call if he has a problem with plant equipment. “I’d call Greg Swanson in Moline or Keith Alexander in Decatur and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ And they’d say, ‘I’ve had that, and it’s fixed like this.’”

One way to build a good network is through conferences: “My goal is to meet three new people at every conference and to be able to communicate with them. Then you can build lasting relationships.”

Working with regulators

There are other ways to build productive relationships. In 2016, the Illinois Environmental Council, a coalition of environmental groups, urged legislation to regulate lead contamination in rivers, lakes and streams to protect drinking water.

“Instead of just saying, ‘No, that’s not true,’ I brought in a piece of lead pipe and a couple of articles,” Meckes says. “And I said, ‘We agree lead needs to get out. We need to do a better job. But here’s how lead gets into drinking water. Let’s stop this first.’ And right then, we developed a rapport with the council.”

The result of his work is clear on the council’s website, where the Illinois Section AWWA is listed as a stakeholder that helped craft the final bill.

Meckes has also helped the Illinois Section AWWA navigate state legislation and regulations, says Jeff Freeman, chair of the section. Freeman is also CEO of Engineering Enterprises, a consulting firm, and has known Meckes for about a decade.

“I would say Ted’s biggest asset to the Illinois Section is his relationship with state legislators and regulators,” Freeman says. “He does a great job of representing our industry in helping them think through proposed legislation and in talking about practical considerations.” In particular, Freeman mentioned Meckes’ work on a lead service line bill to make line replacements more practical and reasonable for the industry.

As a member of the Water Utility Council, also part of the Illinois Section AWWA, Meckes takes a lead role in monitoring new regulations through the legislature and the rule-making process in the state Department of Public Health. That work is huge, Freeman says, and it helps that Meckes works and lives in the state capital.

“He’s clearly dedicated to the water industry,” Freeman says. “If you reach out to him, he’s always very responsive; and if he can help you out, he will.”  

As for customer relations, Meckes finds proof that people appreciate being listened to. While he was superintendent of the water plant, a woman called him to complain about the taste of chlorine in her water. He thanked her and adjusted the chemical feed.

A year later, she called again with the same complaint and apologized for complaining. “I said, ‘Don’t apologize; you’re one of the hypersensitive population.’” After that, she occasionally called to talk. When Meckes was promoted to water division manager, she sent him a note of congratulations.   


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