When Amanda Martin Akins Came on Board, This Georgia Community Got More Than an Operator

Amanda Martin Akins reaches beyond water and wastewater to improve facilities, the economy and quality of life in her Georgia community

When Amanda Martin Akins Came on Board, This Georgia Community Got More Than an Operator

Martin Akins has contributed to improvements in a variety of municipal service beyond the water and wastewater systems. (Screw screen manufactured by HUBER Technology.)

You don’t typically picture a clean-water superintendent writing grants for items like a street sweeper, flower plantings for the downtown, or vests and radios for the police department.

Just over two years into her tenure in Sparta, Georgia, Amanda Martin Akins has made such things a part of her job description. “She’s not someone who says, ‘How much are you going to pay me and when do I get off?’” says R. Allen Haywood, elected mayor in 2019. “She’s like ‘OK, let’s get this done. I’ll stay here until we get it finished.’ It’s amazing how dedicated she is. She’s young, and I hope we have her for a long time.”

Martin Akins came to Sparta (population 1,235) after working about seven years in various capacities in nearby Milledgeville, a city of 18,500 in central Georgia. Taking over a lagoon wastewater system compromised by more than two decades of neglect, she immediately got busy with repairs and upgrades.

Along the way she lent a hand at the water filtration plant, set up an in-house laboratory for water and wastewater sample testing, launched a health and wellness program for city staff, and acted as an ambassador for an industry in need of new talent.

Meanwhile, she’s working toward a Georgia Rural Water Association Class III Drinking Water Treatment Operator license, with help from a 2022 Water Environment Federation scholarship.

“I plan to sit for my Class I Wastewater license within the next year, budget permitting,” she says. “And I am looking at additional certifications on the water side as well.

Schooled in business

A Georgia native, Martin Akins earned degrees in business management and marketing from Georgia College & State University and Georgia Military College. She started her career in sales and worked her way up to a marketing position with responsibility for the entire Southeast U.S.

A change in her job status led her to look for a new career with stability and a promising future. “I had no idea what I was going to do,” she recalls. “I had a friend who worked for the City of Milledgeville. He said they had a job opening, and he thought that with my business background I would be a good fit.”

She started with the city in 2014 as a FOG inspector and soon moved up to coordinator for the FOG program. She then moved into industrial pretreatment, operations, biosolids, water and sewer maintenance, safety, laboratory, supervisory positions and even billing and budgeting.

She moved over to Sparta in April 2021 for the chance to take on a supervisory role. “When I met her, I was most impressed,” Haywood observes. “Afterward I did a little checking and found that everything she said was true. I asked, ‘What will it take to get you here?’ She gave me a number. I said, ‘That’s a big number, but we’re going to do it.’”

Work cut out

She stepped into a challenging situation. In the aerated lagoon system (0.8 mgd design, 0.35-0.40 average), most of the aerators were down. In the more than 200 acres of spray fields, more than half the spray heads were inoperable, and those that worked barely did so.

She and Class III operator Ray Perritt, also newly hired, went right to work. “We spent months getting the fields back in order, replacing the lines, and getting the aerators working, trying to get the pond conditions back up,” Martin Akins recalls. “We ended up seeding the ponds to get microorganisms back into them. They had gone almost anoxic because they had been starved for air for so long.”

A collection system with multiple lift stations feeds the facility. Influent passes through a bar screen (HUBER Technology) and into the first of two ponds, each with two cells. When Martin Akins arrived the first cell had eight feet of sludge with just a foot or two of water on top. Treatments with Sludge Rx bacterial formulation (AQUAFIX) reduced that to 4 to 6 feet; plans ultimately call for dredging funded by grants.

Each pond has six 7.5 hp surface aerators, a mix of Aqua-Lator (Evoqua Water Technologies) and Aqua-Jet (Aqua-Aerobic Systems) units. Aerator upgrades are in progress. Effluent from the second (polishing) pond enters two storage ponds (only one pond in service at present).

From there, two 75 hp and two U.S. Motors 100 hp pumps (Nidec Motor Corporation) in redundant configurations deliver effluent to the spray fields to irrigate hay, which farmers cut for livestock feed. Failure-prone plastic spray heads are being gradually replaced with more durable metal heads, using grant funds.

Expanding role

Tackling the treatment plant’s challenges meant taking stock of the conditions and setting priorities. “It was sitting down and seeing what needed the most attention,” Martin Akins says. “Only half of our spray fields were operating, and so those fields were hydraulically overloaded. I had to shut them down and let the storage pond fill up.

“The first thing we did was get the other set of spray fields up and going. Once that was done we were able to start drawing the storage pond down. Then we moved on to the aerators. We tried to repair what was out here and then started ordering new aerators.”

Those measures helped improve effluent quality and keep it well within permit limits of 90 mg/L TSS and 50 mg/L BOD. “Typically our BOD is under 20, and often it will be closer to 10 or 15,” Martin Akins says. “TSS we’ve had as low as 3 and as high as 25. We are doing wonderfully in terms of our permit but still have a long way to go.”

Before long, Martin Akins was helping out in other areas: “I’ve been pulled into a little bit of everything. When you’re in a small town, that tends to happen. Everybody here works together. Public Works comes out and assists us. The water and sewer maintenance department helps us routinely.” She also collaborates with Timmy Griffin, utilities superintendent.

At the drinking water plant, which draws up to 2 mgd from Lake Sinclair, Martin Akins has helped Shane Harper, water superintendent, in seeking grants and getting his team trained up. “I’m writing up a course for them, to help them prepare for exams and navigate the new rules and regulations, such as the Lead and Copper Rule,” she reports. She is also working with the drinking water side to set up a laboratory and get it state-certified, as she has already done on the wastewater side.

Looking ahead

Working with Perritt and new Class III operator trainee Michael Graham, Martin Akins is setting priorities for the next few years. They include constructing a building to store equipment, writing a grant for a tractor with a tree cutter and grabber-loader for maintaining the spray fields, creating a spare parts inventory, and seeking a federal Community Development Block Grant for dredging of the first treatment pond, which could cost more than a million dollars.

She has strong support from the mayor and city council. Haywood observes, “She comes in saying, ‘We need to do this. We need to do that. Can we afford to do it?’ I’m making sure that we can.” One of Haywood’s tasks has been to get the utilities side of the city on a sound financial footing. That helps make money available for improvements.

The improvements extend beyond the treatment plants. Martin Akins set up Sparta’s first health and wellness program. It includes health fairs where staff members can get free wellness checkups, and visits from a doctor offering blood tests and blood pressure checks.

“We’re trying to encourage employees to stay with Sparta,” she says. “It’s small things that make it enjoyable to work here. The whole point is to ensure that our employees are healthy. It helps us, and it helps them. In the long run, the small things add up and improve morale.”

Community revitalization is high on Haywood’s agenda, and Martin Akins is playing an important role. They see opportunities for heritage tourism. In the late 1800s, Sparta’s agricultural county was among the wealthiest in Georgia.

Three major highways intersect in the downtown. “We’re taking steps to acquire grants to get our downtown redone,” Martin Akins says. “We’re part of the historic south. The town is loaded with historical sites. There is no reason we shouldn’t have a thriving tourism spot and a little shopping district. We’re also looking at trying to get more industry back here.”  

Meanwhile, Martin Akins is an enthusiastic promoter of her profession. “I have been chatting off everybody’s ear if I can. Hey, come work in this field. It’s great. They pay well. They offer good benefits, You get retirement, you get insurance, you get to work for a municipality. I’m out there preaching about this field. If we could get people in young and maintain them, we’d have a really well-trained team in the end.”


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