This New Jersey Professional Makes Teaching a Vital Part of His Role in Facility Operations

John Perry’s varied experience yields an abundance of material for developing courses that help operators advance their knowledge.

This New Jersey Professional Makes Teaching a Vital Part of His Role in Facility Operations

John Perry has developed operator training courses for many years and is an adjunct instructor at Rutgers University in a continuing professional education program for water and wastewater operators.

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After only eight months on the job, John Perry faced a water crisis.

In the summer of 2020, an explosion of toxic cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) shut down recreation in Lake Hopatcong, the largest lake in New Jersey, damaging businesses dependent on tourism. “It was really bad. It shut the whole lake down for several months,” says Perry, director of water and sewer utilities in Jefferson Township.

“It was like a complete shock to the community. It wasn’t like a gradual closing; it closed everything right away. No swimming, no boating, nothing. It was just eerie. When I would drive past and look at the lake, there was nobody on it, not one boat.”

Since then, preventing future algae blooms on that lake has been a priority for Perry. Before that his 31-year career in water and wastewater treatment had focused mainly on training operators and managing utility assets, along with the day-to-day challenges.

Teaching professionals

Perry has been developing operator training courses for many years and is an adjunct instructor at Rutgers university, which has a continuing professional education program for water and wastewater operators.

He has also been active on the committees of professional organizations that consulted with state legislators on the development of the Water Quality Accountability Act. That state law, which became effective in 2017, requires utilities to create and implement asset management plans for inspecting, maintaining, repairing and replacing their infrastructure.

Perry’s contributions to operator instruction and to professional committees were rewarded when he received the 2020 Harold V. Florence Jr. Meritorious Service Award from the New Jersey American Water Works Association (AWWA) section.

Perry is proud of the work on the Water Quality Accountability Act. “I’ve been involved with the infrastructure management committee, and we worked pretty much hand in hand with the Department of Environmental Protection in putting together that legislation. It was kind of a nice compliment for the regulatory agency to come to our committee in the AWWA and ask for input. There was a lot of good cooperation there.

“It was necessary legislation because infrastructure is out of sight, out of mind. It’s a regulation, but it’s also a tool for operators to run their utilities properly. It makes you perform preventive maintenance. It makes you plan for expansion. It encourages operators to maintain their systems and municipalities to understand that a utility is a growing thing. It grows as population grows, as regulations change, and as treatment technology changes.”

Variety of jobs

In 1990, while finishing his master’s degree in civil engineering at Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont, Perry started working for a water and wastewater contract operations company, gaining experience with a variety of small water and wastewater systems. In 1997, he took a job at the Pequannock Water Treatment Plant, in Newfoundland, New Jersey, an 80 mgd surface water treatment plant that serves the City of Newark.

He started as the laboratory supervisor and regulatory administrator, but after a year was promoted to general supervisor. It was there he began developing operator training courses, starting with required safety training. He credits those classes with helping him develop his presentation skills.

In 1999, he accepted a position with the North Jersey District Water Supply Commission and worked at the Wanaque Water Treatment Plant, a 210 mgd surface water facility. He started as operations supervisor and over 12 years worked his way up to operations manager.

While there he developed an operator training program with the DEP and became certified to create and present training seminars for continuing education hours. That enables the facility to train operators in-house. He also began teaching seminars for the Continuing Education Department at Rutgers.

His courses covered treatment topics such as coagulation and disinfection, as well as safety and emergency response. He also developed a course on biomanipulation, one of the strategies used to control organic material in the commission’s reservoir. His declining rate filtration program for the facility involved reducing the flow rate through filters as they were used. The technique maximized filter life, saved money on chemicals and electricity and reduced the amount of recirculated water needed for filter backwashing. 

Up the ranks

In 2011, Perry became deputy director for the Hackettstown Municipal Utilities Authority; in 2014 he became director of water and sewer utilities for the Township of Montville. In those jobs he kept working on operator training and created asset management programs.

In 2019, he became director of water and sewer utilities for the Township of Jefferson. While he changed jobs over the years, he didn’t have to move; all positions were within commuting distance of his home in Vernon. He and wife Donna have grown sons: Sean, Ryan and Troy.

At Jefferson, Perry supervises a staff of nine: Ivy Bartholomew, administrative clerk; Bart Greene, water supervisor; Colin Wycha and Greg Wachtel, water repairers; Matt Palko, sewer supervisor; Joseph Fett and Jon Dikun, sewer repairers; and Randy Consentino and Alan Arsenault, meter readers.

The township’s assets include nine wells and four wastewater treatment plants in capacities from 20,000 to 130,000 gpd. The 60,000 gpd Waters Edge plant and a 20,000 gpd plant send effluent to a groundwater recharge area. The 130,000 gpd White Rock plant in Milton and another 20,000 gpd plant discharge to tributaries of the Pequannock River.

The White Rock plant is operating at near capacity. “We’re going to have to look at a plant expansion there,” Perry says. “We have areas that are not sewered that we’d like to get sewered. We’ll see what’s most economical and what fits the footprint of our plant property.” Options include adding more extended aeration capacity and adding rotating biological contactors.

Protecting the lake

An even larger project likely to occupy Perry’s time for the next few years is the construction of a sewer system around Lake Hopatcong as a long-term solution to reduce phosphorus loading to the lake. The project will involve coordination with several local governments and state regulatory agencies.

Some of the design work is done, but it needs to be updated. The plan is for Jefferson Township to build the collection system and connect to the Musconetcong Sewerage Authority’s wastewater treatment plant in Budd Lake. The sewer system would replace about 3,500 septic systems. An ordinance requiring periodic septic tank servicing is in place, but the algae bloom last summer showed that more needs to be done.

“I’ve always heard that if a septic tank is maintained properly, it will last forever,” Perry says, “but in my experience, people don’t maintain their septic tanks properly and we usually see more failures than we do anything else. That’s exactly the problem that we are having over at Lake Hopatcong.”

Temporary aerators were used in the lake last summer, and biological manipulation has also been proposed to reduce algae, but Perry is convinced that sewers will have the greatest long-term effect. “It’s a beautiful lake,” he says. “It’s a precious resource for both the town and the state. Sewering the entire area and removing all those septic tanks will add to the aesthetics, it will increase the water quality, and it will also help the businesses in the lake community.”

The project will cost about $80 million, and sewer connection fees for property owners would help support a portion of the project, but Perry suspects that home values could rise as a result: “For the amount of money homeowners put in to connect, their home value will go up twice that amount.”

Dovetailing themes

The major themes of Perry’s career appear to be dovetailing in his current role. He continues to teach, and he is certified to develop courses for operators. Over the years he has developed more than 50 hours of course material, and now he is working on courses in asset management, in line with the requirements of the Water Quality Accountability Act.

When he offers a course for his staff, it’s also open to operators from other utilities: “When I’m going to do training, we provide it to outside townships, free of charge. If we do charge, it’s minimal, just to cover coffee and doughnuts.” The courses can draw 35 to 50 people.

“We get a good turnout. I try to make my presentations interesting, and I try to make it a little bit fun. Every once in a while, I’ll put a surprise slide in, so that people will laugh.”

He enjoys teaching, but it’s the day-to-day challenges of treatment that he enjoys the most.

“I love treatment, water or wastewater,” he says. “There is so much troubleshooting as water quality changes. I just love to problem-solve. If there is a problem in the plant, I get satisfaction out of solving it.”   


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