A Self-Described Private Person Stands Out in the Kansas Water Operator Community

Perry Smith’s varied background made him ideally suited to operating a new reverse osmosis facility in southwest Kansas.

A Self-Described Private Person Stands Out in the Kansas Water Operator Community

From left, Luke West, Wheatland water treatment manager, Perry Smith, and Francis Lobmeyer, master electrician, examine the operations schematic on the Allen-Bradley VersaView 5200 display (Rockwell Automation).

Perry Smith still doesn’t know who nominated him for his awards. He certainly wasn’t pleased about standing up in front of a crowd of people.

“I’m kind of a private person,” he says. In 2019 he received the Water Plant Operator of the Year award from the Kansas Rural Water Association, and the Operator Meritorious Award from the Kansas Section, AWWA. The state AWWA newsletter said Smith has consistently met the criteria for the award and through creative management serves large customers with only two employees.

Smith is manager of water works for Wheatland Electric Cooperative in Garden City, a community of about 26,000 along the Arkansas River in southwest Kansas. It’s the place where he grew up, and that he came back to when it was time to settle.

On the road

He grew up near Garden City but after high school he didn’t stay. He went into commercial construction, and from his start as a laborer in August 1980 he swiftly rose to carpenter, foreman, assistant superintendent and then acting superintendent.

He worked on schools, hospitals and other structures in Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Alabama. After eight years, he went to work for the City of Holcomb, about 8 miles west of Garden City, because he could stay in one place instead of living in the mobile home his company paid to move from one job site to the next. 

“It’s difficult to raise two boys and be married when you’re moving from state to state, job to job,” Smith says. “It was time to park and plant some roots.” In Holcomb he began as a water plant operator but within a year became city superintendent. In a town of about 2,200, that meant doing everything. “Water, sewer, solid waste, streets, new utilities, asphalt, paving, curb and gutter, sidewalks, lift stations, sewer, water, and I ran the trash truck.” He liked the variety.

New plant rising

After 14 years with Holcomb, he learned that Wheatland Electric was building a water treatment plant and was in the market for an operator. In September 2002, he started work when the reverse osmosis plant was just a slab of concrete and the shell of a building.

Design-build work was complete and all the equipment selected from GE Osmonics was installed, but Wheatland wanted its own representative on the ground working with the contractor and learning about the plant.

Wheatland’s water business is wholesale, but it also contracts to run the distribution system for the Finney County Rural Water District just outside Garden City. Smith handles both the water plant and the lift stations and pipes in the district’s system. Reverse osmosis was new to him.

“It was probably better, at that time, that I didn’t know anything and had no preconceived notions about what needed to be done,” he says. Learning RO wasn’t hard, and the staff members from GE were good teachers. “Learning how to make the equipment we have work, with water quality that was always changing, that was probably the largest learning curve. And, full disclosure, I’m still learning today.”

Two trains

The 6 mgd (design) Wheatland RO plant brings raw water in through a 20-inch pipe, and 85% of that is fed to the plant. The rest bypasses the RO system and is later blended with RO permeate to replace minerals and other chemical compounds removed by the RO process.

Water going through the plant is first pretreated in 155 1-micron filters in Pall Water housings. The filtered water empties into a sump where it is picked up by a Johnson pump with a 300 hp GE motor, boosting pressure to at least 180 psi, the minimum required for the RO membranes.

The RO system consists of two three-stage trains. Each train has 62 housings with seven membranes in each housing. All water is pumped through the first stage of 32 housings. Permeate is sent to the end of the train while the concentrate (water that hasn’t passed through a membrane and contains high levels of contaminants filtered out through the process) is sent to the 22-housing second stage. Concentrate from the second stage is sent to a third stage with eight filter housings.

Each RO train can treat up to 3 mgd and uses an input of 2,200 gpm to produce an output of 1,800 gpm of filtered water. Concentrate from the third stage is returned to the ground through a deep well. Permeate is blended with the bypassed raw water, chlorinated, adjusted for pH, and sent to a 3-million-gallon storage tank.

Troubled waters

The Wheatland plant was designed for expansion. When the plant was built, rough piping, electrical service and SCADA blanks were installed for another three RO trains. That would give the plant a capacity of 15 mgd.

Water in local wells has two problems: sulfates and uranium. Garden City is in the alluvial soils of the Arkansas River, and wells around it draw from the Ogallala Aquifer, which stretches beneath the western Great Plains from southern South Dakota to western Texas.

Ordinarily, it is desirable to have a well next to a river so that there is recharge as groundwater moves past the well and toward the river, Smith says. But the Arkansas River isn’t like that. “The water has effectively been pumped out by the agricultural interests on both sides of the river, and so where water used to run toward the river, now the river levels have dropped, and the water flows out.”

Water flowing out of the river and into the aquifer carries uranium and sulfates picked up in eastern Colorado. RO and nanofiltration can remove that, which is why RO is gaining popularity in his part of the country.

Growing responsibilities

Hours for Smith and Francis Lobmeyer, a Class IV water operator, are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. They alternate weeks being on call. Lobmeyer, who trained as an electrician, met Smith while the plant was being built.

“He has brought a wealth of knowledge and skill to the water division,” Smith says. “We just finished a very comprehensive SCADA upgrade, PLCs and software, working with Allen-Bradley (Rockwell Automation). Lobmeyer worked in the thick of that because he wired this building.

“Our SCADA system is pretty heavily automated. Wheatland Electric has let us make some changes, and we have an alarm system that covers pretty much anything that could happen. Most things that could happen can be taken care of by computer.” Using company-issued secure laptops, he and Lobmeyer can link to the SCADA system from home.

During Smith’s time with Wheatland, the water operation has expanded. In addition to sending about 2.7 mgd to Garden City, the plant supplies about 300,000 gpd to the Finney County Rural Water District, and more water to a Tyson Foods facility just west of Holcomb.  

The job he has now is extensive, moving from plant to pipes and pumps and back. It’s not as varied as his job in Holcomb, but he doesn’t miss that. “A lot of days it was more juggling than getting anything done,” he recalls. “In a town of 2,200 people, you have 2,200 people who think they’re your boss.”

At the same time, he says, accomplishing anything takes a team. In Garden City, that means the people at the cooperative, in particular Lobmeyer and Luke West, director of corporate services and water for Wheatland Electric and Smith’s supervisor.

A workhorse

West’s observations about Smith are simple: “You’re going to be hard-pressed to find somebody who’s more dedicated to what he does. He’s very diverse because of his history, has a very strong work ethic, and has a high expectation of that from others as well. He doesn’t like to sit still, and he’s very passionate about what he does. He works all the time, and he gets enjoyment out of it.”

Smith lives in the country about halfway between Holcomb and Garden City. When not on the job, he works in his yard or drives to the plant just to check in. He also enjoys riding his motorcycles: “My latest one is a 2016 Harley-Davidson Ultra Glide.” He also has a 1999 Kawasaki Vulcan Classic and a 2004 Suzuki DR-Z400 for trails, plus two ATVs and three pickup trucks.

“I don’t really hunt anymore, but I do like to shoot,” he says. There’s plenty of open land in the sand hills south of the Arkansas River where he can keep up his skills with a rifle, pistol and shotgun.

With about 30 years in the water industry, his top piece of advice for a new person is this: “There is nothing static. Everything changes.”

That is not the same as saying he wanted a job where nothing changes. “That would seem to be an awful boring career to come in and do the exact same thing at the exact same time every day. That’s what I call going stable-sour.

“If you leave a horse in a stable too long, it doesn’t like to be ridden when you get it out. It just wants to stand in the stable. So I think it’s best to have diversity, keep yourself dusted off. By incident or accident, Wheatland Electric has let me do that.”  


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.