Leadership Is Central to the Culture at This Texas Clean-Water Plant

The San Jacinto Water Authority treatment plants are set up for excellence. It’s no wonder they deliver consistent quality effluent — and have the awards to prove it.

Leadership Is Central to the Culture at This Texas Clean-Water Plant

The team at the San Jacinto River Authority includes, from left, Jason Williams, utility enterprise operations manager; Rick Moore, utility operations superintendent; Tracy McGrew, senior operator; Cory Brown, lead operator; and Joshua Hatch, Kevin Burnett and Jeremy Elder, operators.

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If you joined the San Jacinto River Authority as a new clean-water plant operator, the first thing they’d talk to you about would be leadership.

That’s the culture, according to Jason Williams, utility operations manager, and Rick Moore, utility operations superintendent. “It’s what management communicates to staff,” Williams says. “It’s a team effort. We care about the quality of the effluent. We’re concerned about the environment. We share knowledge and information, and we’re proud of what we do.”

What they do is operate three regional wastewater treatment plants serving several municipal utility districts in the San Jacinto River watershed. While all the facilities have won awards, the most recent honors went to plants 2 and 3, named 2019 Plant of the Year in their size categories by the Water Environment Association of Texas.

Plant processes

Plant 2 is the larger, with a design capacity of 6 mgd and average daily flow of 3.8 mgd. It came online in April 1999.

The plant uses Flygt and Gorman Rupp pumps for influent and return and waste activated sludge. Two automatic mechanical bar screens (Headworks) and one manual screen remove rags and debris, followed by grit removal.

Eight aeration basins with fine-bubble rubber membrane diffusers (Sanitaire) are designed for single-stage nitrification. These are followed by three secondary clarifiers, one cloth media filter and two low-head sand filters (all Aqua-Aerobic Systems). After chlorination and then dechlorination with sulfur dioxide, the effluent is discharged to Panther Branch, which feeds into Lake Woodlands.

Waste activated sludge is thickened on gravity belt thickeners (Alfa Laval), and aerobic digesters condition the biosolids before dewatering on Alfa Laval belt filter presses. Cake is trucked to a landfill or composting site.

Plant 3 (0.9 mgd design/0.5 mgd average) began operating in July 2003. It is a complete mix facility. Debris is removed via a perforated bar screen (Parkson Corporation). Two aeration basins with fine-bubble diffusers (Sanitaire) provide biological treatment, followed by two secondary clarifiers and chlorination before discharge to an unnamed creek.

Digested liquid solids are hauled to another facility for final treatment. At Plant 2, odors at the headworks are controlled with an earthen media biofilter. Odors are not an issue at Plant 3. “We pay vigilant attention to odors at all our plants,” Williams says. 

State-of-the-art controls

A central SCADA system enables operators to remotely monitor process operations and equipment status, and control process equipment 24/7. Features of the SCADA system include aeration control, flow proportional return-activated sludge control, and disinfection system control. Instruments include Hach Solitax and LDO (luminescent dissolved oxygen) probes that provide real-time aeration basin TSS and DO readings.

Operators can access the SCADA system via their iPhones or iPads, or laptop and desktop computers. They can also consult dedicated on-site SCADA workstations at each facility. SCADA system design, improvements and maintenance are a collaborative effort between operations and the SCADA team, led by Matt Volna, SCADA/instrumentation and control manager; Chris Clements, instrumentation and control superintendent; Danny Burns, programming superintendent; and their teams.

All process and regulatory data is stored in the Hach Water Information Management System (WIMS). Operators collect and input data via an iPhone app, and from field observations and laboratory tests for such parameters as temperature, SV30, BOD, NH3-N, MLSS, turbidity, chlorination and pH. 

The staff has the support it needs to get the job done. “We have a comprehensive enterprise asset-management plan, as well as a rolling 10-year project plan,” Moore says. “Our project plan is robust and updated annually. We also include all lift stations and underground assets in these programs, as all utilities should.”

Through diligent rehabilitation and replacement of infrastructure, the utility is working to minimize I&I and has replaced or improved process equipment from pumps, bar screens and blowers, to diffusers, clarifiers and filters. “We’re getting better and better at it every year,” Williams says. 

Super staffing

The modern processes and automation go a long way to maintain staff morale and motivate excellence. Cory Brown, lead operator, heads the crew responsible for plants 2 and 3. On his team are senior operator Tracy McGrew, and operators Josh Hatch, Jeremy Elder and Kevin Burnett.

They are supported by the operations team at Plant 1, including lead operator Will Parks, and operators John Connell, Scott Schwinn, Tia Ramey and Mike Coyne. Chris Meeks serves as operations and maintenance manager. The authority makes it a practice to rotate staff among the plants to increase the knowledge and skills of all team members.

“We also have a top-flight maintenance and electrical crew, which we rely on a lot,” Moore says. David Guyer is maintenance manager; Jacob Everett is chief maintenance technician; Jeff Meyer and David Lindquist are lead maintenance technicians; James Turner, Curtis Nord, Jeff Harris, Andrew Ridpath, Jacob Sherrod and Bill Gibson are maintenance technicians; and Wayne Jackson is chlorine technician.

Weather check

When severe weather threatens, it’s all hands on deck at the San Jacinto authority. Located near the Gulf of Mexico, the plants are often in the bullseye for hurricanes and significant rainfalls.

Moore ticks off the more memorable storms: “The Tax Day Flood of 2016, Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Tropical Storm Barry in 2019, and Hurricane Laura in 2020. With storms in the Gulf, you never know where they’re going to go. We get high winds, heavy rains and increased storm flows.”

The well-trained crew is a blessing when that happens, and the facilities are ready. All plants have backup generators. “We test run them every week, and load test them quarterly,” Moore says. “We make sure we have access to fuel. With Hurricane Ike in 2008, power was out for three days but it wasn’t an issue here.”

To handle the bad weather, shifts are re-aligned to provide 24-hour coverage. Sometimes, as with Harvey, the operators’ homes are also flooded and team members end up staying in the treatment facilities for several days. “In that case we provide bedding, food, dry socks and clothes,” Williams says. “We give them time to rest and wind down.”

Moore summarizes the wet-weather strategy: “We operate the plants so they don’t operate us.”

Boosting alkalinity

The San Jacinto authority had to take control of another situation in 2015 when the utility switched its raw water supply from groundwater to surface water, complying with the county’s groundwater reduction policy.

“Surface water is naturally alkaline deficient,” Moore explains. “To achieve nitrification, we had to add alkalinity to our influent.” After experimenting, the staff chose to add magnesium hydroxide ahead of the biological treatment basins at all three plants, giving the organisms the opportunity to nitrify. They found that to be safer and less hazardous than other chemicals.

“We get fantastic support from our tech services group. We collaborate to solve issues,” Williams adds.

Other challenges to the team include increasing population in the fast-growing community, maintaining assets, and keeping up with technological advances. Moore says team members are always looking for upgrades and implement them when and where needed.

And then there’s the pandemic. The staff experienced cases of COVID-19 during 2020. A few operators were quarantined; all recovered. The authority provided personal protective equipment and took an approach which it calls “very careful.”

He explains, “We set up shifts for four 10-hour days. One crew operates Sunday through Wednesday, and the second crew Wednesday through Saturday. That gave us the opportunity to meet together on Wednesday, talk shop and pass along information. Most of the meetings are outdoors, and everyone stays socially distanced.”

The WIMS and SCADA control were instrumental in operators sharing data and information across shifts without having to meet face-to-face.

Operator focused

Having overcome these challenges in the past, the authority’s skilled operations team is well prepared to handle whatever issues the future may bring. That’s because the utility values its operators and creates the opportunity for them to succeed.

“We work as a team,” Moore says. “Our pay rates and benefits are very good, and the utility provides good working conditions. The utility pays for training and licensing.”

Training is a point of emphasis. Williams, Moore, operations and maintenance manager Meeks, and lead operator Brown are all certified water professionals through the Texas A&M Extension course of study.

The team has seen some veteran operators retire recently, and more will follow five or 10 years from now. “The state of Texas is short of operators, so we have to plan and hire a new generation,” Williams says. “We teach them our culture of pride, responsibility and constant improvement from day one. From the top down, it’s all about leadership.”

Or as Moore puts it: “We train up.”   


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