This Talent Rose to the Top

A back injury ended Rusty Tournade’s career as a bricklayer. Today he’s an award-winning water plant operator and foreman.

This Talent Rose to the Top

The team at the Eudora Water Treatment Plant includes, from left, Travis Ramos, Class IV operator; Rusty Tournade, operator foreman; Greg Perkins, Class I operator; and Lawrence Steele, Class IV operator.

Rusty Tournade came to the water industry only nine years ago.  

He started with the City of Eudora, in Northeast Kansas, in 2012 as a seasonal worker on the mowing crew. Then he went full time, reading water meters for two weeks a month and otherwise working on the streets or running the vacuum truck cleaning sewer lines.

“I was interested in the water plant,” he recalls. “They had only three operators at the time.”

He asked for training, and the city manager agreed. “So they cross-trained me over here. It wasn’t two or three months later when water plant foreman left, so they asked me if I wanted to come over here.” About six months later, he was promoted to foreman.

For his excellent performance, Tournade received a 2020 Operator Meritorious Service Award from the Kansas Section AWWA.

Unconventional path

Tournade arrived in Eudora in (population 6,400) with a varied background. He grew up in Plains, a small town in the southwest corner of Kansas near the Oklahoma border, and graduated from high school in 1977. He started work life in bricklaying because it was an interest of his best friend: “We drove back and forth to Liberal and took vo-tech for a year,” he says.

But while working in concrete construction he injured his back. “Bricklaying is a lot of bending over and lifting, so I decided that probably wasn’t a career job for me,” he says.

He found work with a company that oversaw irrigation rigs, and that introduced him to pumps and water. Then for about a dozen years he worked as maintenance supervisor for a swine-breeding company; that introduced him to wastewater.

He moved to Northeast Kansas because it gave his wife Marla more job opportunity. She worked as a nurse at a hospital near Plains but saw no path for advancement there beyond direct patient care; she is now director of nursing for a retirement community.

Tournade found a job with Amarr Garage Doors in nearby Lawrence. There he had to work nights, and every other weekend there was mandatory overtime. He moved on to be buildings and grounds lead at Lawrence High School, overseeing custodial and maintenance workers.

“I loved the job, loved working with the kids, but I couldn’t handle the leadership at that time,” he says. He feels better suited to that role now.

Softening water

Eudora uses groundwater and operates a lime softening plant. Groundwater entering the plant and runs through aerators and then into a rapid mixer that feeds lime, polymer and anti-corrosion chemicals.

After the rapid mix, the flow is divided between the two upflow clarifiers. Next are a set of sand, gravel and anthracite gravity filters, followed by the clearwell and the distribution system. “Coming out of the wells, we’re running between 400 and 500 grains of hardness,” Tournade says. “Yesterday, leaving the plant we had an average of 108.”

There are six wells, one on the plant site and the others are about a mile northwest of Eudora.

Some maintenance is subcontracted out. “If I have to buy a bunch of tools to do a job, I won’t,” Tournade says. “But anything that I can tear down and get back together in a day or two, we usually do in house.”

Steady growth

A new water plant is coming in a few years. Although the present plant is not at capacity, it will get there, Tournade says. Eudora has been growing because people are moving in from Lawrence to the west and the Kansas City metro area to the east. From April 2010 to April 2020, the population increased 4.3%.

Population growth is the only big issue. The choice, he says, is between expanding the current plant and building a new one, but there is no space on the existing site, a triangle of land bounded by a road, a railroad track and the Wakarusa River. City public works buildings also occupy the site, too, along with trucks, trailers and other equipment. So Tournade believes the best option is to build a new plant elsewhere.

Before the pandemic year when everyone was at home and using water all day, it was easy to predict what the large-volume days would be. Previously, Sunday was high demand day, but Monday wasn’t. The pandemic flipped that.  

Helping out

As of late last year, the street department had only two people, so Tournade’s department (with four) shared emergency calls. The streets department has the city’s sewer-cleaning vacuum truck. Sometimes there are no off-hours calls. Most are simple, like backed-up sewers. Winter calls come from people who don’t have water or have frozen pipes and need supply lines shut off.

Working in the plant with Tournade are Travis Ramos, Class IV operator; Lawrence Steele, Class II; Greg Perkins, Class I. Tournade is a Class IV.

State law requires a Class III license to run the plant. “We don’t require all our operators to be Class III or above,” Tournade says. “They are required to have a Class I license within 18 months of being hired. We encourage them to get more education, but it’s not mandatory.”

Although Tournade is not a fan of working night shifts, the 24/7 nature of the Eudora job doesn’t bother him: “When I started here, I was getting a lot of alarm calls. Through the years I was able to figure out better ways to fix things, and now I don’t get alarm calls very often.” 

Eye on maintenance

One continuing problem was the lime feeder, which wasn’t running properly. “A couple of years ago I got really frustrated, and so I just shut the plant down and tore it all apart and figured out what I thought might be the problem,” Tournade says. The paddles, which are supposed to just barely touch the inside of the chute, had worn bushings. He replaced the bushings and paddles, and that was the solution.

One criterion for the AWWA award is for modifying or using equipment to improve treatment. Another part is for maintenance. Usually twice a year, Tournade pigs the lines that bring water from the wells. He comes in early, runs the plant for about an hour until other people arrive, and then shuts the plant down and starts running pigs. “I like to run about seven pigs through a line to get it all cleaned out,” he says.

It’s a necessity given the high iron content of the groundwater. When a new well was added a few years ago, technicians making the connection opened the 10-inch main leading to the plant. “They cut a section of that 10-inch line out, and it was probably closer to a 7-inch center than a 10-inch,” Tournade recalls. “It had that much buildup on it.” 

Pigging lines saves money: If lines aren’t kept clean, more well pumps have to operate to get the same volume of raw water.

Another in-house task is draining and cleaning the upflow clarifiers twice a year. When clarifiers are in use, water is about 15 feet deep, and it’s impossible to see the scraper on the bottom of the basin. Two people can drain, thoroughly clean, inspect and repair parts in one clarifier in three to four days.

A contractor handles well pump and motor maintenance. Occasionally Tournade has to call for service. Once rust prevented a check valve above a pump from closing. “Usually, you kick your wells on, and within 5 or 10 seconds the plant is up and running,” he says.

“We would turn those wells on and the wells would turn green on the SCADA, which means they’re running, but the rest of the equipment wouldn’t kick on right away.” He worked out which well caused the problem; the contractor removed the pump and installed a new valve.

Operators in Kansas may be familiar with the Eudora plant because it hosts regular training workshops for the AWWA. Tournade is on the section’s operator training committee; promoting training is another criterion for the operator award.

There are two workshops are for continuing education, one for beginners (Class I and II operators) and the other for advanced operators. They are mainly classroom sessions, although there is some hands-on instruction. A constant in all the workshops is math: “On your state test, you have math problems to figure out,” Tournade says.

Family time

Tournade spends his time off with family. He likes doing yardwork at the house he and his wife built about 20 years ago, about 10 minutes from the plant. At present he is putting in flower beds.

“I used to love to go hunting, but I really haven’t really gone hunting for over 20 years,” he says. “I’ve got four or five shotguns still sitting in the gun case.” 

His favorite part of his job is its diversity: “I don’t like sitting and doing one thing all day. Between the water towers and the wells and things at the plant, you’re on the move a lot. I like this job. That’s why I stay here.”   


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