A Military Vet Applies His Water Background to a Prosperous Career in the Wastewater Profession

Skills learned during an Air Force career help Rodney Lance run an efficient clean-water plant and work effectively with this team.

A Military Vet Applies His Water Background to a Prosperous Career in the Wastewater Profession

Rodney Lance, right, plant manager, shown with Pat Blatter, operations and maintenance technician, has built a reputation for building strong relationships with his team and paying close attention to detail. 

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Rodney Lance wasn’t sure what he was getting into when the Air Force assigned him to water and wastewater back in 1986.

He had enlisted and signed up for the open career field. The assignment included the water facilities, water distribution, fire suppression and plumbing. Now, 35 years later, Lance can be satisfied with his successes as manager of the Great Falls (Montana) Wastewater Treatment Plant for Veolia North America.

Those include a 2018 William D. Hatfield Award and a 2021 Operator of the Year distinction from the Montana Water Environment Association, which he has served for several years as secretary-treasurer.

“I’ve really liked it,” he says. “It’s always different. Process management. Sending clean water out to the river. Helping the environment.”


Lance came to Great Falls in 2006 when the Air Force sent him to Malmstrom Air Force Base. When he retired in 2011, he took a job with a railroad company, but his heart wasn’t in it. It’s much different now.

He joined the staff at the Great Falls plant as an operator in training, and then became operations manager in 2014, assistant plant manager in 2019, and plant manager in 2021. The plant, which Veolia has managed for several decades, serves about 65,000 people.

Three bioreactors using fine-bubble diffusers (Sanitaire, a Xylem brand) and blowers (APG-Neuros) accomplish biological nutrient removal to meet clean water standards. Effluent BOD averaged 4.36 mg/L in 2021, and suspended solids 4.77 mg/L. Effluent phosphorus averaged 0.29 mg/L and ammonia nitrogen just over 9 mg/L.

Effluent is UV disinfected (Ozonia) before discharge to the Missouri River. Design flow is 13.3 mgd; average 8.5 to 9.0 mgd. The solids process includes anaerobic digestion, polymer addition and dewatering on a pair of centrifuges (Andritz). Between 36,000 and 72,000 pounds of cake at 20% solids is landfilled six days a week.

Plant processes are monitored and controlled by an Oracle utilities work and asset management program. The staff includes 14 people who operate the plant seven days a week all day, every day. They include Joseph Fayden, operations manager; Keith Nelson, maintenance manager; and Nathan Christiaens, laboratory technician.

The Great Falls system includes 28 wastewater lift stations and four stormwater pumping stations.

In addition to daily operations, Lance’s chief responsibilities include planning, organization, scheduling, employee evaluation, training, facility maintenance, reporting and analyses, compliance assurance, safety and emergency response. “Keeps me out of trouble,” he says.


As a contract operator, Lance maintains what he calls a “professional client interface” with city management, and a critical connection with Veolia. He does well on both counts.

“Rodney does a great job supporting Great Falls,” says Melissa Sandvold, vice president of operations for Veolia in the northwestern United States and northern California. “He listens and makes sure our programs are meeting the needs and expectations of our client.”

Paul Skubinna, Great Falls Public Works director, agrees.

“Rodney is amazing. He’s been a plant manager for a little over a year and has really stepped up and done a great job. We communicate really well — sit down and talk capital improvements, resources, or maintenance. It’s good to stay connected.”

Skubinna points out that the city’s long-standing relationship with Veolia is based on confidence and mutual comfort: “The plant employs local people, who are vested in the community. That’s what makes it work.”

Lance meets with the city team weekly or every other week as conditions call for. “We keep the city informed, and they talk to us about any issues,” he says. Lance adds that being part of the Veolia organization is a plus.

Veolia has operations and maintenance contracts with more than 600 communities serving more than 10 million people throughout the United States. The contracts are designed to streamline plant operations, improve efficiency and increase reliability.

The company provides technical and management support and also helps with purchasing key commodities, especially important with supply chain problems brought on by the COVID pandemic. “Vendors are eager to work with us,” Lance says. “In some cases, we have nationwide agreements.”


Cost is a key challenge for Lance and his team. “Costs are going up,” he says. “In the case of polymer, maybe 40-50%. Plus, delivery is up to five months out.”

The harsh northern Montana winters also present issues. Temperatures can stay below zero for days on end, causing difficulties like foaming and bulking in the aerobic digesters. “Freezing and breakup can cause problems with the bacteria and the media,” Lance says.

Then there are the more specific task-oriented challenges. “That includes the digester cleaning project,” says Lance. “It was the first in 15 years. It is a 1.5 million-gallon vessel. We did it ourselves, and it took three to four months. There was a lot of grit and silt. We had to use fire hoses to dislodge material, and we had to filter out the liquid and re-treat it. It took everyone here.”

Lance’s military background helps him deal with serious issues. “Through its Airman Leadership School, the Air Force teaches you management and leadership skills,” he says. “You learn how to work with people. You focus on ethics and attention to detail. You must be accurate, 100% correct, 100% of the time. The military instills that in you.”

“That’s his strength,” Sandvold says. “He meets deadlines, crosses all the T’s, dots all the I’s. He understands programs and makes them clear to his staff.”


The hard work has paid off. “I get great satisfaction just being in this career field,” Lance says. He enjoys working with people from different backgrounds within Veolia and the city, and with the different treatment processes: “You never know what’s coming. There’s always something different going on. I like sending clean water out to the river and the people downstream, and helping the environment.

He values his staff and says safety and his plant’s safety record are paramount. “As of last December, we’ve gone 22 years with just one lost time accident,” he says. “In the last 17 years, we’ve had only four recorded accidents. It’s a great day when you can go home at the end of the day the way you came to work.”

Being promoted has been a highlight, as have the awards and recognitions he has received. “Lots of people are deserving,” he says. “To be nominated and recognized by your peers is quite an honor.”

Lance likes to hunt and read historical fiction, but he’s now spending lots of time with his youngest son Christopher, 17, who plays the trumpet with an interest in jazz.  “I love to hear him play.” 


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