This operator's approach is simple: Channel people where they are strong. Understand that every person is different.

Ramon Arguello creates and nurtures a workplace culture and environment that helps bring out team members’ talents and achieve impressive results.

This operator's approach is simple: Channel people where they are strong. Understand that every person is different.

The Drake facility has a 23 mgd design capacity and a 13 mgd average flow. It has been reconfigured for biological nutrient removal.

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What started out as just a job to pay the bills turned into a decades-long love and constant source of fascination for Ramon Arguello.

As process control supervisor for the Mulberry and Drake Water Reclamation Facilities in Fort Collins, Colorado, Arguello he has seen tremendous improvement, growth and evolution in the ways wastewater treatment and water resources are handled in his community.

The facilities under the city’s Water Reclamation and Biosolids Division have generated some windfalls and potential new sources of revenue during their development. And a few things operators traditionally see as negatives have actually worked to benefit the treatment facilities’ performance.

An interesting start

Arguello began his career as a mechanical engineer, graduating in 1971 with a degree from Colorado State University and going to work for telephone utilities, manufacturing firms and other commercial interests.

Then in 1976, he heard of an opportunity in the Fort Collins in their wastewater division and got his start as an operator at the Drake Water Reclamation Facility, which had just been constructed under the Clean Water Act Fund. It was a ground-floor opportunity for Arguello, who was looking for a long-term career.

Over the years he worked his way up, eventually obtaining Class A Wastewater Plant Operator certification. “What helped me the most when I was beginning in this field was my educational background, being able to look at things from a theoretical standpoint and see how all of the various pieces fit together in a systematic fashion,” Arguello says.

“Studying all the components and how they were integrated gave me an understanding for how they would and could be used to solve real-world problems. With wastewater treatment, there are so many processes that influence each other. Over a period of time I gained an appreciation for its complexity and celebrated it. By embracing it this way, it all came to make perfect sense.”

His interest in the sciences made wastewater treatment something that could capture his interest and hold it indefinitely. The physics, hydraulics, mechanics, chemistry and biological aspects of the field, all mixed together, made the work challenging and enabled him to consistently expand his learning and skill development.

Shift in focus

The Drake reclamation facility is 23 mgd design, 13 mgd average, and the Mulberry facility is 6 mgd design, 3 mgd average, and have been reconfigured and built to perform biological nutrient removal.

In the older parts of Fort Collins, collection systems have begun to develop some inflow and infiltration issues. The collection crews are addressing them systematically, but Arguello notes that over time the effects of I&I as it relates to the treatment facilities could change.

“One would think that when an infiltration problem exists in a collection system, that might impact the hydraulic load on the facility and would be looked at as a negative thing,” he says. “However in the case of BNR, there is a part of the process that deals with nitrification, the removal of nitrogen, which reduces alkalinity. That in turn affects pH, and lower pH in effluent isn’t a good thing.

“As it turns out, some modest infiltration of groundwater brings in alkalinity that actually helps to regulate and rebalance the process. So infiltration can be looked at as a negative from a hydraulic standpoint, but from a treatment standpoint it actually can be beneficial.”

Fostering the passion

Arguello’s primary duty is to oversee a team of eight talented and spirited plant operators: David Coad, Nick Russell, Warren Barlow, Jim Gregory, Frank Wallander, Tracy Bane, John Davenport and Eric Lintner. He takes it upon himself to see that they are equipped to perform optimally to clean the wastewater.

Arguello keeps the team engaged and excited through a workplace culture of empowerment:  “As a manager, it’s very important for me to involve every member of my team in the design and construction of any of our capital improvement projects.

“I firmly believe that the high degree of success we experience is a direct result of the operators being involved throughout the process, having the power and accountability to deal with any issues that come up along the way.”

This level of involvement enables the operators to gain new knowledge and skills, and it creates buy-in as well. “When the team has invested so much time and energy in a project, they take on more ownership,” Arguello says. “The community is better served, and the operators view their involvement as a personal investment in that facility. They become committed to supporting it and ensuring its long-term success.”

The approach Arguello put in place to build on what the plant was already producing has created unexpected process improvements. The plant has achieved effluent quality and nitrogen and phosphorus removals much higher than expected. Arguello attributes that to the operators’ involvement and the optimization of their talents.

Capital improvement projects the team has undertaken from start to finish at the Drake facility include replacing chlorine with UV disinfection systems (WEDECO - a Xylem Brand), installing two new Centrisys/CNP dewatering centrifuges, and converting the treatment processes at the facility from conventional activated sludge to biological nutrient removal.

Also at the Drake facility, construction of an MagPrex phosphorus removal system (Centrisys/CNP) is under way and the design or redesign of the facility’s headworks will begin in the near future.

Sustainable staffing

Like many municipal utilities, Fort Collins faces the effects of the silver tsunami. Arguello came on board with a group of operators who over 25 years developed their experience and knowledge together. They were a tightknit group, but all except Arguello have retired over the last five years.

Training for new staff needs to be approached differently than in past years, where the city relied on shadowing and mentoring to bring people along until they were confident and able to contribute independently.

Today Arguello’s team is relatively new to the industry: his longest-serving staff member, David Coad, has been with the city for just five years. He is considering developing a more formal and structured training approach.

The same is true with recruitment. “My manager Jason Graham and I are considering changing our method from the typical job announcement that is advertised, applications received and candidates brought in for interviews, to a recruiting style where we sell the organization and the benefits of working for our facility to local schools and colleges and at job fairs,” Arguello says.

“Because of competition to attract and retain good people, it is important that we educate job seekers about the advantages of a stable, recession-resistant field like wastewater. 

Mentored for success

For his efforts, Arguello received the 2019 Plant Operator Award from the Rocky Mountain Water Environment Association. He was honored to be acknowledged but remembers and thanks those who helped him get his start.

“I’ll always be grateful to the senior operator, Wendell Sturdevant, who took me under his wing,” Arguello says. “Being a recent college graduate, I had quite a bit of book knowledge, but I needed so much more for this job.

“My mentor had been in the wastewater industry for over 20 years and had all of the needed practical experience under his belt. He was a patient teacher who dealt with this book learner and communicated effectively as to how I might use all that college learning and apply it to practical situations for my career.” That mentor/apprentice approach led Arguello to create his own empowerment management model for his new team over the past few years. 

He built a good team and achieved his organization’s goals by following a simple formula: Channel people where they are strong. Understand that every person is different. Structure an environment where each member’s strengths contribute most effectively to the work that’s expected of the group. Support and empower the team and involve them as much as possible so they can evolve and someday fill your shoes, if that’s what they envision for their future. 

Arguello concludes, “Creating positive environmental impact for our communities now and in the future starts with engaging and encouraging operators today.”   


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