Growing Up in a Drought-Plagued Region Helped Propel Lydia Teel Into a Water Career

With a love of her home region and relentless study, a young professional engineer successfully spearheads key water supply and treatment projects in Nevada.

Growing Up in a Drought-Plagued Region Helped Propel Lydia Teel Into a Water Career

Lydia Teel works in the lab with Matt Burggraff, water reclamation plant operator.

Lydia Teel has a special place in her heart for water resources.

Growing up in northern Nevada, where constant drought made being water wise essential, Teel knew early on that she wanted to do something involving environmental protection, wildlife conservation, hydrogeology or a related field.

Her college professors and industry mentors have encouraged her to push the envelope and take part in water and wastewater projects to support sustainable water management in the region.  

As emerging resources program administrator for Truckee Meadows Water Authority in Reno, Teel holds a newly created position.

Although the authority deals solely with drinking water, its leaders find that managing water for future generations means collaborating with other agencies, so that water and wastewater initiatives are seen from diverse perspectives. By combining resources, they have created sustainable initiatives for the greater good of the region.

Born and bred

Teel began her academic career at the University of Nevada, Reno, majoring in hydrogeology; she completed a Ph.D. in environmental engineering there last December.

“During my undergrad studies I realized how much I enjoyed mathematics and applied science. So, I decided to take my career toward a degree in environmental engineering, which tied together everything I wanted to be involved with for my life’s work,” says Teel.

“I saw it as empowering to be involved in wastewater and water treatment along with hydrogeology and water conservation. Making all those pieces work together is where the future is.” During graduate school, Teel interned with Washoe County, working on reclaimed water and wastewater treatment design.

In 2019 she transitioned to Truckee Meadows to focus on the OneWater Nevada initiative, a regional collaborative effort to research and realize innovative water supply options and advanced water treatment technologies for northern Nevada. Teel’s diverse academic background along with design and treatment experience made her a well-rounded professional engineer ideally suited to the role.

Schooling gave Teel a good foundation for managing the different treatment processes, but she admits that college can only teach an engineer so much; working in the field to see how things worked was a key to helping her to excel. She took every opportunity to ask questions and gain knowledge from the authority’s large and diverse staff of mechanics and operators.

“That experience was crucial for my development,” Teel says. “Maybe it wasn’t official training, but it helped me progress and has been instrumental in gaining my certifications for treatment and distribution.”


Teel’s position requires substantial autonomy, as she is the only full-time staff member devoted to the OneWater Nevada projects. Although not required to supervise anyone, she is able to pull talent from other groups and departments to advance collaboration and help achieve common goals.

One of her most pivotal projects is the OneWater Nevada Advanced Purified Water pilot study, which was several years in the making and was conducted at various treatment plants in the region. The project involved small-scale treatment trailers that processed secondary wastewater effluent at 15 gpm, treating it to drinking water quality. The pilot study enabled OneWater Nevada to be first in the state permitted to do groundwater recharge using advanced purified water.

Teel’s deep ties and connection to her alma mater were beneficial, as the university led the treatment technology evaluations and water quality testing and compliance programs for the demonstration projects. Students helped with sampling and conducted special research studies that were key in answering crucial questions.

The trailers’ purification technologies included coagulation, flocculation and clarification, granular media filtration, ozone-biological activated carbon, granular activated carbon and UV disinfection. After treatment, the purified water is introduced to the groundwater at a small scale for an extended period.

“The study showed that the advanced treatment cleans the water to a level that can meet all federal and state drinking water standards and can diversify our region’s water portfolio by adding an option that is sustainable and energy efficient,” says Teel. “It can also reduce our region’s reliance on the Truckee River and provide a safe, sustainable water supply even during drought and at times when our supply may be uncertain due to changes in climate.”

Teel’s role included working with the hydrogeologists to monitor the water that was injected into the aquifer. She also worked with the City of Reno and Truckee Meadows operators to make sure the treatment trailers operated around the clock. Teel also worked in educating the public about OneWater Nevada projects.

During the demonstration, a feasibility study looked at the technical, social, environmental, financial, regulatory compliance, public engagement, testing and geotechnical aspects of adding advanced purified water to the regional water supply. It determined that the process showed great promise for delivering a substantial contribution to groundwater augmentation.

Incentive to grow

Working on such a large-scale project and gaining hands-on experience across several applications inspired Teel to continue working toward certifications and increasing her operational knowledge.

“Even though I wasn’t required to have all the certifications, I really wanted them, as they could help me down the road if I began working with operators more,” she says. “They enable me to understand what they do and work with them a more closely.”

Teel loves field work, as it poses challenges that force her to think outside the box. One day she may be at a construction site for a new drinking water plant, the next at a wastewater treatment plant on a pilot study, or on a drill rig helping the hydrogeology team. Her favorite part of the position is the diversity of experience.

“I’m a huge proponent of school,” she says. “I enjoy going to school and learning, but one of the main things that has helped me in my career is working with operators, shadowing them, observing them and understanding their roles.

“I may know how to design a treatment plan on paper, but I want to see how the people who operate one day-to-day make it happen. Seeing this firsthand helps an engineer understand different design criteria and what truly needs to be built into a plant to make it most efficient.”

Dream team

Teel has had many mentors, but three stand out. The most prominent, Rick Warner, a past president of the Water Environment Federation took Teel under his wing, sending her to conferences, and pushing her to get involved with different committees. He introduced her to her Ph.D. adviser Dr. Krishna Pagilla at her alma mater.

Teel also cites her current supervisor, John Enloe. She credits these three as a star team driving water solutions in northern Nevada; they have given her diverse knowledge to help her excel.

Her agency increasingly relies on Teel as the go-to person for public meetings involving the various projects, initiatives and pilots in the region. She enjoys speaking directly with the public, fielding questions, and bringing in the right experts when needed.

“I really enjoy this part of the job,” she observes. “I have so much history in this region and can relate to the people when they’re worried about their water resources or unsure about the projects we’re doing. Because of that, by simply speaking from the heart, I’m able to assure them that we are doing all of our work for the right reasons.”

Teel has received numerous industry honors, the latest being the 2021 WateReuse Association Up and Comer award and the 2020 WEF Canham Scholar. She has co-authored numerous publications and is a volunteer with many industry and community associations, Nevada WateReuse Association, WEF, Leaders Innovation Forum for Technology, and Nevada Bighorns Unlimited.

What’s Next?

The Reno area has five wastewater facilities operated by Washoe County, the City of Reno and the City of Sparks. Although they’re owned by different agencies, Teel has worked at each of them in some capacity.

For those thinking about entering the industry Teel offers this advice: “Take advantage of any opportunity that comes your way, because you never know where it will lead you. Just do it.” Although she regards the OneWater Nevada pilot as the highlight of her career, she finds new projects also rewarding.

“With these projects I feel like I’m able to do something to benefit our region and help us understand what we need to design for full-scale implementation. It helps the Truckee Meadows and other area communities as well. They’ve been watching our projects and now are looking to do something similar.” OneWater Nevada is now looking to design and construct a 2 mgd advanced purified water demonstration study using similar technology as the pilot study.   


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