Wastewater Work Gave This Kansas Operator a Chance to Help the Streams He Cares Deeply About

Jamie Belden first wanted to be a fisheries biologist. In wastewater treatment he found more rewards and greater capacity to make a difference for the environment.

Wastewater Work Gave This Kansas Operator a Chance to Help the Streams He Cares Deeply About

Jamie Belden, operations supervisor, watches worker Vicente Hernandez clean the lamps in the UV disinfection system (Trojan Technologies) installed at the Lower Arkansas River Wastewater Treatment Facility.

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Wastewater work gave Jamie Belden a chance to help the streams he cares deeply about while earning a good wage.

After many years of varied experience, Belden is operations supervisor with the Wichita Public Works and Utilities Water Reclamation Division, overseeing the city’s four wastewater treatment plants and the biosolids dewatering and land application programs.

Wichita’s largest clean-water plant is the Lower Arkansas River facility (54.4 mgd design). It receives and combines dewatered biosolids from three smaller plants (Four Mile Creek 3 mgd, Cowskin Creek 2 mgd, Mid-Continent 3 mgd, all design flows) for application to cropland.

The smaller plants resulted from a decision to stop expanding the collection system and to build treatment capacity closer to growth areas. From 2010-20, the city’s population grew 4%; today it is 390,000. The smaller facilities also opened the possibility of water reuse, helped mitigate odors, and reduced the need for expensive upgrades at the Lower Arkansas plant.

Belden’s stewardship of these plants was recognized when he received a 2021 William D. Hatfield Award from the Kansas Water Environment Association.

A natural attraction

Belden grew up in Mulvane, Kansas, about 10 miles south of Wichita, where he gravitated toward water. His grandparents owned land with a creek. He recalls, “I actually wanted to be a stream fisheries biologist because I wanted to look more at rivers and streams and land-use practices and their effects on the populations in the rivers and streams. There’s so many cool little fish and macroinvertebrate species in these streams and rivers that nobody knows about.”

He earned a degree in environmental biology from Friends University while playing some football and a lot of baseball: “I was a 5-10, 165-pound right-handed pitcher. I threw hard, and I had four pitches.” Major league scouts invited him to a couple of camps, but a scout told him he’d never leave the minors because he wasn’t bulky enough to project authority as a pitcher.

“At that point I was accepted to graduate school, I was engaged and I already had my path going forward,” he says. “It would have been fun to go play overseas or play independent league, but all it would have done was keep me playing for a few years.”

Instead, he took a job in 2000 as pretreatment specialist in Wichita, where he earned one-third more than a seasonal fisheries biologist with a master’s degree. In pretreatment he was involved in a program to reduce mercury loading. In part it meant working with dentists to modify their handling of office wastewater and amalgam filling debris.

In 2004 he was promoted to operations supervisor, where he found that he had more daily effect on stream water quality than he would have in fisheries.

Switching sectors

In 2008 a friend at a farm equipment manufacturer recruited Belden as an environmental health and safety manager. He was there for about 18 months, implemented some very successful programs, and traveled to various facilities to help them prepare for audits.

It wasn’t the best situation for a man with two young daughters: “It was good money. I learned a lot, I gained a lot of maturity, and I got a lot thrown at me, but I needed a chance to step back and be with my kids a little bit more.”

So in 2010 he took a job with the city of Rose Hill, Kansas, a community of about 4,000 people eight miles southeast of Wichita. The city had just finished a new biological nutrient removal plant. Belden’s job was to get the plant running and explain its benefits to citizens. But after a couple of years, after being promoted to public works superintendent, the political environment looked uncertain.

He contacted Rebecca Lewis, his former boss at Wichita, who had hired him for pretreatment. “She let me know my old position was open and said, ‘I’d love to have you back.’ And we ended up reuniting as a team.”

Deferred needs

When he came back to Wichita in 2014, the operation was different. After the 2008 recession, funding had dwindled, and maintenance had been deferred on the city’s World War II-era infrastructure.

At the Cowskin Creek plant, a headworks rehabilitation addressed concrete corrosion digester and diffuser problems. “And we were hauling liquid biosolids, which is a lot of risk, effort, manpower and fuel.” The city added centrifuge dewatering (Westfalia), saving considerable expense and labor.

At the Lower Arkansas River plant, the team changed from a Trojan4000UV disinfection system to a Trojan Signa system (Trojan Technologies). Electricity use dropped so much that the power utility called to ask why. Payback on the change was 30 months.

The Four Mile Creek plant capacity was increased from 3 mgd to 6 mgd. BNR capacity doubled, and the project added rotary drum thickeners (Parkson Corp.), jet aeration (Evoqua Water Technologies), a new pump station, two FSM filterscreens (SAVECO / Enviro-Care) and a rebuilt centrifuge (Andritz).

Major upgrade

Meanwhile, the Lower Arkansas River plant, built in 1957, had another in a series of upgrades in for form of a complete revamping of the headworks. The uses an extended aeration activated sludge process; on the solids side it uses dissolved air flotation (Ovivo) for thickening, anaerobic digestion and a belt filter press (Alfa Laval).

The plant uses about 1 mgd of recycled water for its processes; another 1 mgd goes to Spirit AeroSystems, the area’s largest employer and one of the world’s largest manufacturers of aircraft structures, such as fuselages and wings. The remaining treated water is discharged to the Arkansas River.

Next up for the plant is a $350 million project to improve biological nutrient removal capability. Construction begins next year. The project will improve screening and grit removal, replace trickling filters with anaerobic and anoxic zones in aeration basins, upgrade the clarifiers and blowers, and improve the UV disinfection system.

For solids processing, dissolved air flotation may be replaced with rotary drum thickeners to reduce polymer use and energy use. The anaerobic digesters will be rehabilitated, and the city is considering selling the biogas.

Biosolids handling will also change. About six truck trailers per shift are hauled to a large drying shed on the north end of the plant property. Plans call for replacing trucks with a pipeline and building a new dewatering facility. “We can minimize the amount of driving and operation, so it should really give us a lot better efficiency,” Belden says.

Odor control is a priority: “When they built these plants in the 1950s and 1960s, they went out to the edge of town, everything was open-air, and nobody would move next to them,” Belden says. Subdivisions now crowd close to the Lower Arkansas plant.

With engineering company CDM, the staff is looking at odor controls that in some cases may be as simple as adding a cover and sending the odorous air through a biofilter. “We’ll never eliminate odors, but if we can really improve the atmosphere for citizens, that’s another real big benefit to this project,” Belden says.

Community outreach

Good public relations is a priority for Wichita. “One thing we’ve done is work with Wichita State University,” Belden says. “Each summer we get high school kids to come out. I do a presentation, show them what wastewater is about, and talk to them about the biology and chemistry and all the stuff that makes it exciting and interesting,” Belden says.

The university does this through Work in Water, a program that encourages young people to pursue water careers and teaches them the importance of water treatment for public health and the environment.

The city has also worked with master’s degree students in public health so that they understand the treatment plant. “Even the adult population really doesn’t know where their water comes from, where it goes, how it’s treated, where it goes afterward, and the importance of treatment,” Belden says. “Our industry has been very effective at hiding what we do for a lot of years.”

Making it fun

With all of the aging plants, Belden’s team has had to think about how to operate the equipment if something should go wrong. “Although that’s scary at times to think about, sometimes that’s when you learn the most, and it’s the most fun to operate,” Belden says. “Because when everything is perfect and you have a nice brand new plant, you don’t get to sit down and brainstorm with your team and come up with ways to meet new challenges.”

The plant team includes Rebecca Lewis, division manager; Carlos Botello, David Firsching and Jeff Williams, plant operators; David Harper, maintenance manager; Mike Carroll and Lucius Howland, maintenance supervisors; Daniel Botello, pretreatment administrator; and Ryan Bogatie, biosolids supervisor.

A number of the supervisors started in operations. Belden is most proud of the team overcoming problems while staying within permit limits. For example, one day an intermediate clarifier went down, and no one was sure why.

The clarifier came offline, but that meant also shutting down a bank of trickling filters. That reduced ammonia removal because all the oxygen was used to remove BOD. Operators adjusted the mixed liquor in the aeration basins, adjusted the return activated sludge pumping rate, and shaved off some flow to hold in storage, all to reduce loading on the basins.

Meantime, the team worked with utility managers to find money to repair the 60-year-old clarifier. The equipment came back online, and while there was some increase in ammonia, it was within permit limits.

That’s the kind of thing that keeps Belden going: “When you understand how technical the job is and how much goes into it, it’s just not what people think at all. And the technology that’s coming out these days is so exciting. It’s a good industry to be in.”  


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