He Started Out Fixing Pickup Trucks and Other Machines. Now He Fixes Water in a Diverse Career in His Home State.

Eli Jennings turned a fix-it background and a love of engineering into a Hatfield Award-winning clean-water career in his native Colorado.

He Started Out Fixing Pickup Trucks and Other Machines. Now He Fixes Water in a Diverse Career in His Home State.

Eli Jennings, operations manager at the Clifton (Colorado) Sanitation District.

What do you do with a guy who fixes old pickup trucks for fun? Send him to engineering school, of course.

Eli Jennings, operations manager at the Clifton (Colorado) Sanitation District, grew up in the small western Colorado town of Collbran. As a youngster, he was always welding, tinkering with pickups and building things. When his 15-person class graduated from high school, off he went to the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, one of the premier engineering schools in the West.

“I knew I wanted to get into an engineering-related field,” Jennings says. He began in mechanical engineering but switched to civil: “I was exposed to wastewater treatment in school when one of my elective classes toured a facility and I got some baseline interest.”

Upon graduation, he took a job with a concrete supplier in Glenwood Springs, where he was involved with construction jobs. He soon heard about an operations opening at a wastewater treatment plant, applied for the job and got it. “I knew I had a good background for it from school,” he recalls. “The field is stable, and the job was close to home. I’d be protecting the environment, and it was a good fit.”

Single-shop operation

The job was in New Castle, an old mining town of 4,500 about 15 miles west of Glenwood Springs. He was hired mainly as a wastewater operator; he and three other operators handled wastewater collection and treatment, as well as water treatment and distribution. He even plowed snow: “I got to see how everything worked. I used my degree more there than I did working as an engineer.” 

He also liked working for the town where he was living. He got busy earning his licenses and soon had his Class A wastewater operators and Level 4 collection systems (highest) licenses. He also earned Class B water operator and Class 2 water distribution licenses.

About five years later, opportunity knocked again, and Jennings took a job as an operator at the Clifton district’s 2.5 mgd (design) activated sludge plant, which processes about 1.2 mgd. The plant provides wastewater services to about 21,000 people in an unincorporated suburb just east of Grand Junction. “It’s a bigger organization, so I saw it as a bigger challenge with more opportunity to advance,” Jennings says. 

New opportunities

He spent his first year and a half at Clifton working in the lab as an environmental analyst. He passed the Rocky Mountain Water Quality Analysts Association’s certification exam for Analyst Level 1 (lowest). On the job, he did all the state-required lab sampling, analysis and reporting while also completing the discharge monitoring reports and compiling the biosolids annual report.

Working for a special district rather than as part of a city organization, Jennings observes, “I have to do more, and I get to do more.” A couple of promotions later, Jennings stepped up to his current position as operations manager.  

His duties are broad and varied. Brian Woods, Jennings’ boss and the district manager, says Jennings exercises considerable independent judgment, using his own discretion in planning, developing, analyzing, coordinating, implementing, conducting and administering water-quality control programs that meet state and federal standards and permit requirements.

In addition, Jennings oversees the laboratory and the industrial waste pretreatment programs and has added safety responsibilities to his portfolio. His attention to continuing the safety culture that Woods established netted the utility the 2017 George W. Burke Jr. Facility Safety Award, a prestigious Water Environment Federation honor. The district also won the 2017 Colorado Special Districts Association’s Safety District of the Year award.

Leading from the front

As operations manager, Jennings doesn’t just watch from the sidelines: He leads his organization toward continued excellence by doing. “We think of ourselves as doing everything a city would do,” he says. “We have an 80-mile collections system and a treatment plant. Our main property is 65 acres. We also maintain the grounds.”

The Clifton team includes collections system and wastewater operators Jeff Duda, Matt Jones, Matt Talley, Mike Brammer, Travis Dilley, Trevor Workman and Tyler Brumback; Andrew Casano, grounds maintenance; and Pam Smith, administrative assistant.

Clifton is in the middle of Colorado’s wine-producing area, and the district added 3 acres of vineyards several years ago, fertilizing the ground with biosolids. “Brian worked with the Colorado State University Extension and the local farmer to design and plant something that was manageable for the organization and this climate,” Jennings says. “The cabernet franc strain of grapes we grow is particularly hardy and cold resistant. It’s a red wine, a little on the dry side.”

Clifton is an activated sludge extended aeration oxidation ditch plant with simultaneous nitrification and denitrification. In 2015, as the new operations manager, Jennings took part in a project to install anaerobic selectors for biological phosphorus removal and filament control. “As a team, we’re able to complete a lot more projects than any other similar-sized organization with the talent we have in-house,” he states.

They process biosolids using conventional aerobic digestion followed by centrifuge dewatering. When air-drying solids in the summer months, the biosolids are windrowed and turned with a skid-steer-mounted Brown Bear. In summer, they apply the Class B biosolids to agricultural property the district owns. During the six winter months, they deliver their biosolids to a local farmer’s property to boost his hay production.

A little of everything

Grass hay is grown on both the district’s and the farmer’s property: “We do all the biosolids sampling, analysis and application management. The farmer applies the material with a spreader the district owns.”

The district does development design reviews, inspections on new construction and oversight on its own capital projects. Jennings’ engineering background gives him a “good level of understanding of what we’re talking about on these projects. Integration into projects has been pretty seamless, and that’s been enjoyable.”

He’s pleasantly surprised at being able to identify, plan, budget for, design, build and operate projects all the way through: “For the projects I worked on before this, I felt I just carried them about two-thirds of the way to completion. But it’s the operational side that excites me.”

He praises his crew’s can-do attitude and what they have accomplished in process control and operations. “Our district manager selected all the right equipment, built the plant and put it all in place,” Jennings says. “The final step is operating it. We’ve put in a lot of effort, including ORP control. It’s the best measure of current condition in a treatment basin to determine the nutrient removal processes taking place.”

Many awards

His efforts are paying off. The district was named a Colorado Environmental Leadership Program Gold Leader in 2018, and the Rocky Mountain Water Environment Association presented Jennings with its William D. Hatfield Award in 2019.

He was also part of the team that earned other awards, including Colorado Rural Water Association Wastewater System of the Year in 2015 and the Rocky Mountain association’s Plant Performance Award in 2016.

Never content to just let things be, Jennings has added process instrumentation to the plant’s effluent train. The plant now has real-time monitoring of nitrates, phosphorus and ammonia. “It was a great step to get everyone to see, on a day-to-day basis, what our output was instead of just grabbing samples,” he says. “Periodic sampling doesn’t give you the full picture, and it’s too late to fix it when you get the answer.”

The team’s most recent hurdle involved the aeration system. They studied the air demand and knew how they could reduce it even more, but the blowers they had wouldn’t let them. So they did a retrofit project that included three new 200 hp Eaton PowerXL DG1 Series variable-frequency drives and a new control system using Allen-Bradley CompactLogix 5380 Series controllers (Rockwell Automation).

The equipment was installed in April and May. They also had a complete control system revision to operate. “We upgraded all the PLCs and rewrote the logic,” Jennings says. “We need to do it anyway, but this was our chance to write in the control systems to manage the VFDs and provide flow-based aeration control to replace the pressure-based systems.”

While he and his facility rack up recognition, Jennings is unsparing with praise for his team and for the operations profession in general: “Operators deserve all the credit they get because when the keys are turned over to them, they make it work.”   


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