This Operator Learned Passion for Water at an Early Age. Now It's His Profession.

In learning his trade, operating water facilities and teaching others, William Leonard never loses sight of his own and his team’s essential purpose.

This Operator Learned Passion for Water at an Early Age. Now It's His Profession.

William Leonard leads by treating all team members as being at his level — he never talks down to them.

From a young age William Leonard understood the importance of water.

That’s not because he grew up in Lake Elsinore, about 60 miles southeast of Los Angeles and near the edge of Southern California’s desert interior. His understanding came from his father, who grew up in North Carolina where the family didn’t have running water; only a well.

“I knew from a very early age how important water was because a lot of my family back there didn’t have it,” he says. Today, as lead production operator for the Elsinore Valley Municipal Water District, he’s informed by his family’s history as he and his team provide water to 42,000 service connections.

His work has brought him satisfaction along with recognition through the 2020 Operator’s Meritorious Service Award from the California-Nevada AWWA Section. Leonard didn’t choose a water career at first. It was a chance remark from a supervisor that started him thinking.

Change of course

After high school in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he was an iron worker. He became a pipeline welder for the Rainbow Municipal Water District in Fallbrook, about 20 miles south of Lake Elsinore, working on pipelines and fixing leaks in pipes running beneath the streets.

“We’d work hours around the clock,” he recalls. One day supervisor Clint Baze came to a job site and told Leonard that if he took more schooling, he could better himself. “I was in a hole, actually, a 5-foot hole,” Leonard says. “And I thought, I’d like to be up there some day instead of down here in the hole.”

He worked as a welder for about four years, was a construction worker and backhoe operator for a year, and then saw a job opening with the Lake Elsinore district. He started as a lead construction worker, but when a job opened in water production, he moved. “That’s when I really started going to school and getting the grades I needed,” he says. Since 2016 he has been lead operator.

Team building

“The biggest benefit of my job is trying to train young operators to have the same passion that I have,” Leonard says. “I don’t think there’s any downside to the position because it’s allowing me to continue to learn and to continue to lead other people into a supervisory role someday.”

Leonard’s water treatment team members are Shawn Gray, superintendent; Damien Gutierrez, production lead operator; and production operator Jim Scroggins, Greg Lopez, Steve Garcia, Rafael Arriaga, Andrew Sauceda and Jason Dominguez. “All of us are water treatment operators, so that’s what makes us a little different than most,” Leonard says. “Our operators don’t just do water production; they do both water production and water treatment.”

Lake Elsinore uses a variety of water sources to balance demands. The district imports water from two other districts, has 14 wells, and draws surface water from the Canyon Lake reservoir. The water is treated at three plants: the Canyon Lake surface water plant, a 5 mgd groundwater plant that removes arsenic from two wells, and a small plant that treats water from two agricultural wells now being used for domestic supply.

Imported water isn’t treated except for boosting chlorine concentration. “One of our sources comes from 10 miles away, and by the time it hits our pipeline, the residual has dissipated,” Leonard explains. Most wells tap an aquifer in the Elsinore Valley. Depending on the time of year and the surface water conditions, all the sources can be used to deliver good water to customers.

Controlling quality

Water from all sources uses chloramine as the residual disinfectant. The Canyon Lake treatment plant uses an upflow clarifier; it’s tricky because everything happens in one unit. “What’s tricky is keeping control of the sludge blanket,” Leonard says. “We have to control the level so it doesn’t come over the top of the clarifier.” Control is achieved through chemical adjustments based on jar tests, which reveal the nature of source water and what kind of floc is building inside the clarifier.

“This type of plant, it’s not just science,” Leonard says. “You can’t come up with a math equation to run this plant. It’s a little bit of trial and error, a little bit of feel of what that blanket is doing.”

The 720-square-mile San Jacinto watershed drains into the lake, Leonard says. Southern California’s heavy seasonal rains generate substantial runoff into the lake, and there are periodic algae blooms.

“That’s where the challenge is, because conditions are always changing on the lake.” Algae, pH and runoff all affect the sludge blanket. As lead operator, Leonard has been deeply involved with compliance. Over the years, many limits have become stricter. When the arsenic limit was lowered from 50 parts per billion to 10, the district had to build a special treatment plant to remove that element from a couple of wells.

 Learning quickly

“After we built the plant, I had to learn how to run it,” says Leonard. “I worked with engineers for about a year to see whether the plant was removing arsenic and what conditions would affect that.” 

At the Canyon Lake plant, tighter limits for TOC removal and trihalomethanes meant switching from polyaluminum chloride to ferric chloride as a main coagulant. This change produced a thicker blanket and controlled inefficiencies of blanket rise at night. The change meant operators had to do a series of jar tests and work with engineers to discover how to fine-tune the process. The plant at first used free chlorine for disinfection and then switched to chloramine around 2007 because it lasts longer in distribution pipes and suppresses formation of trihalomethanes.

It took many days, and some nights, and plenty of internet research and conversations with engineers to learn how the upflow clarifiers worked and how they should work. “Because I wasn’t shown how to run it, I developed my own way,” Leonard says.

For a couple of years, he would make a change and then watch how the plant responded.

Then, before he became a lead operator, he trained others, trying to pass on the knowledge he had gained. He continues to learn and still runs experiments, often coupled with questions from the district’s engineering group, to tweak the process.

Little systems

The AWWA award cited Leonard in part for teaching others to handle the district’s SCADA system. “We have so many different boosters and wells and different pressure zones; we have a lot of little systems in a big system,” he says.

The district provides water not only to the developed area around Lake Elsinore but also to homes in the nearby hills and to customers who live more than 2,400 feet up in the Santa Rosa Mountains. The district has nearly 75 pressure zones. SCADA allows remote access to the facility. “I can literally be as far as Disneyland from here and control a booster,” Leonard says. 

After all the training and schooling, Leonard has been happy to stay at Lake Elsinore with the supervisors he respects, and with a path open to future supervisory work for himself. “I feel like I’m making a difference here,” he says.

In college Leonard picked up an idea that has guided his life as a lead operator: servant leadership. “I put everybody working with me at my level, and I talk to them at my level,” he says. “I don’t try to separate myself as someone different or higher. That allows me to have the trust of the operators to call and tell me when something is not correct. It’s OK to make mistakes as long as we can correct them swiftly so no one gets sick.”

He notes that the Lake Elsinore district as a whole is moving toward a formal servant-leadership model: “When you work for an organization like that, it allows you to grow. It allows you to make mistakes. It allows you to try different things. If you don’t have support from your management, you can get lost in the shuffle.”

What really matters

In his spare time, Leonard likes to work on classic cars, including a 1971 Monte Carlo, a 1967 Ranchero and a 1966 Mustang. “My dad was an excellent mechanic, so he taught me a lot from a very early age,” Leonard says. “The ability he gave me is what got me started.”

 He learned more from his father than mechanics: he learned the importance of water. On his office wall is a picture of a child drinking from a water fountain. He has tried to implant that picture into his co-workers’ memories. If a child goes to a public water fountain, takes a drink and the water is cool, sweet and healthy — that’s all Leonard wants. Then he has done his job.  


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