A California Project Proves It: Big Plant Improvement Projects Are All About People, Notably Operators

Operators played a key role in every phase of the huge Regional San facility upgrade labeled EchoWater

A California Project Proves It: Big Plant Improvement Projects Are All About People, Notably Operators

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The EchoWater Project in Sacramento took seven years to construct, costing nearly $1.8 billion. It is touted as the biggest public works endeavor in the city’s history. 

Yet the human factor — communications and a commitment to excellence — is what made this massive undertaking successful.

“Our operators were encouraged to provide input to the project right from the beginning,” says Michael Melady, chief plant operator and treatment plant operations and maintenance manager for the Sacramento (California) Regional County Sanitation District, known as (Regional San). “Operators working hand-in-hand with design engineers, regulatory staff and construction management was key.

“We made a commitment to the success of the project and assigned two of our best shift supervisors, Jason Haddix and Brent Ramsey, to it from the outset. They served as relentless advocates for our operations and for the wastewater process. This project was built with operator input on a daily basis for over seven years. If something wasn’t right, the philosophy was to fix it right away, and for the most part we did.”

Sprawling territory

Regional San owns and operates an expansive conveyance system, along with the Sacramento Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant near Elk Grove. The facility serves about 1.6 million people as well as industrial and commercial customers. The plant has a permitted capacity of 181 mgd and an average flow of 141 mgd.

In 2010, stringent new treatment requirements and permit compliance deadlines were issued,   calling for Regional San to reduce ammonia discharges to the Sacramento River. The new permit also required Regional San’s effluent to comply with California’s Title 22 reuse standards.

The two major objectives of the EchoWater project were met through the replacement of an older high-purity oxygen activated sludge process with a 330 mgd biological nutrient removal system and the construction of a 260 mgd granular media filtration facility.

The name EchoWater is a reference to the concept of returning the water to the environment in a positive, useful way, in this case as nearly ammonia-free, tertiary-filtered effluent.

Multiple projects

The EchoWater Project involved more than the construction BNR and filtration facilities. “There were at least 14 different projects, many occurring at the same time and many needing to be constructed in a deliberate order with one project dependent on the completion of another,” Melady says.

These projects included a nitrifying sidestream treatment system; a new biological odor-control facility; replacement of the return activated sludge pumps; rehabilitation of the 40-year-old effluent valves; and expansion of the emergency storage basins to equalize diurnal flows, smooth out the treatment process and save chemicals.

In addition, an older gaseous chemical handling system was replaced with new safer liquid-based chemical handling facilities. The plant’s electrical substation was expanded and the old pure-oxygen activated sludge system was decommissioned and removed.

The RAS pump project was typical of the level of attention and effort from the Sacramento team. “The hydraulic requirements of our RAS system changed, and we had to replace all of our RAS pumps,” says Melady. “For the new BNR process, our return rates increased from about 30% to 70%. In addition, the new system needed to move our RAS flows about 15 feet higher and much farther than the old system.”

Sidestream treatment

Equally important was a new nitrifying sidestream treatment system that processes the flows returning from the solids storage basins. After five years of stabilization, the solids of each basin are harvested. Using harvest boats, the solids are dredged, extracted, and transferred to a land-based distribution manifold. 

From there, the solids slurry is pumped to a series of tractors that cut grooves into the topsoil of lined basins into which the solids slurry is injected. After the slurry dries, tractor operations plow, till and disk the topsoil. Regional San injects about 20,000 tons of stabilized solids into lined basins per year.

By nitrifying the sidestream flow, the facility protects the quality of the plant effluent, while producing a nitrate-rich stream that is returned to the influent to reduce other chemicals. The sidestream treatment facility includes a flow diversion structure and a fine screen. A lime storage and feed facility ensures adequate alkalinity for the BNR process.

“In the past we had high loads of ammonia just sitting there in our storage basins,” says Melady. “During high storm events the ammonia-loaded water would return to the plant and cycle through to our effluent. We couldn’t allow that to happen with our new ammonia limits.”

Engaging operators

With many of these projects occurring simultaneously, communications and operator input were critical. “You have a third of your plant out of service,” says Melady. “You’ve got raging storms during our rainy season. We couldn’t use those parts of the plant that were being worked on. We bent over backward to give the contractors access to do their work, so we could meet the deadlines of our new permit.

“It was a delicate path to walk, but the planning and implementation for each shut down and tie-in was excellent. With something this complicated, there is no way to just wing it and expect to have a successful outcome.”

Regional San operators were in the mix right from the start of construction. “Initially, we took two of our best plant supervisors and over 5% of our craft staff and assigned them to the EchoWater Project.

“It hurt our staffing to take them away from operating and maintaining the plant, but we needed them as a clearinghouse for all aspects of the EchoWater. They were heavily involved with design input of the new facilities. They were also involved with construction oversight, tie-ins and commissioning, electronic documentation, standard operating procedures, and the training of our operators to run the new facilities.”

Lonny Fawver, wastewater treatment operations supervisor, notes that the operators and craft staff assigned to EchoWater project went to the construction meetings from day one. Melady adds, “I credit our executive management for this. They understood what the operators and crafts were trying to do and invested the resources to make success a reality. The operators were not just in an advisory role. They were a valued part of the decision process.

“They looked at how the new plant was being built. They learned the contractors’ language, what things to look out for, and how to get things done. The project engineers received valuable feedback from our operators as to what worked and what needed to be to be re-engineered. Lessons learned from one project tended to feed into another. All EchoWater projects ran through the group of assigned operators and crafts, and that was the first part of the success story.”

Generational change

Like many water and wastewater agencies, Regional San experienced operator turnover throughout the project, mostly because of retirements. “At the beginning of EchoWater, a lot of our operators had been hired between 1970 and 1995,” says Fawver. “Over the past seven years we’ve had a wave of operator retirements, affecting almost 50% of our positions.”

To replace them, Regional San has hired a number of young people, many without significant experience in the field. “It was a generational change,” says Fawver.

Where are new operators coming from? “All over the place,” says Fawver. “Some from other plants, others from colleges, some with technical education or experience working in other industrial or technical fields.”

Melady notes that it has been has been difficult to hire experienced operators recently: 

“About a third of our operators over the past few years have been hired from other industries with no wastewater experience. We’re willing to hire talented people with technical skills who are capable of learning wastewater operations. Bright people in one area or industry can be bright in this one, and they’ve shown the ability to excel quickly.”

Full staffing

Regional San has also made sure to have enough well-trained operators on board. “The last thing you want is not to have enough people,” says Melady. “If you’re short-staffed, you’ll end up operating to meet a minimum standard. If anything, during the first few years of a new process, you want to be overstaffed and have enough resources to learn the finer points of operating and maintaining the new facilities.”

Fawver says the new plant has about 60 certified operators working in the field, an increase of 10% over the previous staffing. Forty of the operators are assigned to five shifts overseeing plant operations, while the other 20 are assigned to three process maintenance teams called HyChem, Bio and Solids.

HyChem maintains chemicals systems, bar screens, grit handling and primary treatment systems, as well as hydraulics influent and effluent pumping. Bio is responsible for the new sidestream treatment and BNR facilities as well as the solids storage tanks and emergency storage basins. The Solids team manages the thickeners, digesters, gas management and flaring, and sludge storage harvesting.

Regional San also established a filtration team that went online last winter. All the processes are online, Regional San will be the second largest tertiary treatment plant in the United States.

Bonding experience

Melady and Fawver feel that while nothing has been easy with the EchoWater Project, it has delivered unexpected benefits to the people involved. Key team members besides Melady and Fawver include Jason Haddix, Brent Ramsey and Darren Roth, wastewater treatment plant operations supervisors; Ken Abraham, John Nurmi and Jill Teplin, process engineers; Leslie Knapp, process consultant; and Glenn Bielefelt, Regional San Director.

“Our old plant was in the middle of its life and things might have been getting a little stagnant,” Melady recalls. He believes that EchoWater, as complicated and difficult as it has been, has revitalized things.

“It’s not just a new plant with shiny new equipment. For everybody who has worked on this project — operators, supporting crafts and engineers — it has been a bonding experience. We’re working with and for each other doing a lot of not-normal and exciting things to build something we can all be proud of.”


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