A Move From the Landfill to the Water Plant Launched This Oklahoma Operator Into a Dream Career

An unlikely beginning set Jennie Woods on a career path to the top of her game. Now she helps develop the next generation of water managers in rural Oklahoma.

A Move From the Landfill to the Water Plant Launched This Oklahoma Operator Into a Dream Career

The staff at the Broken Bow Water Treatment Plant includes, front, Jennie Woods, water treatment supervisor; middle row, from left, Vickie Patterson, city manager; Gary Swift, retired public works director and current project manager; and Shawn Hilton, operator; back row, Jamie Denison, public works director; Kenneth Moore, maintenance/operator; and Stacey Humphrey and Misty Swift, operators.

Jennie Woods is a cheerleader for water management careers.

It’s what she teaches students in her beginner water lab course for the Oklahoma Rural Water Association. And it’s more than lip service. As water treatment plant supervisor for the Broken Bow (Oklahoma) Public Works Authority, she lives what she teaches.

Twenty-two years ago Woods was a scale house operator at the City of Broken Bow landfill when she was asked to move to the water treatment plant. Authority director Gary Swift tapped supervisor Mary Hodge to train Woods, a motivated student.

“It was pure luck,” Woods says. “I had no background. They just asked if I would be willing to learn and train. I had a really good director who allowed me to take as much training as I could, and I ended up loving it.” 

Unlikely beginnings

She remembers, “It was right out of high school. I was married, had already started a family, no college. My supervisor, Mary Hodge, said that a person who was really interested could turn this field into a career, not just a job. Obviously, she was right.”

After a few years, Woods enrolled at Carl Albert College, where she earned a degree in physical science with a base in water and wastewater. Then she progressed through all the Oklahoma certification levels.

Woods started at Broken Bow as a lead operator, not a typical entry position. After she got her Class C Water or Plant Operator certification, the plant’s second supervisor Mary Hodge, retired. Woods then moved into that role.

Such opportunities for advancement were an advantage of working for a small municipality. Broken Bow (population 4,300) nestles in the foothills of the Kiamichi Mountains. Its 1990-era plant supplies water to about 15,000 of McCurtain County’s 34,000 residents.

The gravity-flow plant’s clearwell bottom sits at an elevation of 975 feet and treats about 4.5 mgd with a capacity of 9 mgd. Its source is 185-foot-deep Broken Bow Lake fed by clear water from the Mountain Fork River. Its two ground storage wells hold 2 million gallons each.

Woods’ attitude, work ethic and enthusiasm for the field drives her commitment to excellence. She simply loves her job, which is more than supervision: “I’m still considered an operator. When I get to work, we have a big whiteboard. I look at what has gone wrong since my last 12-hour shift, what needs to be fixed, and what we need to think about over the next few days.

“I make sure the testing is fine, that we have no problems with turbidity or low chlorine. Then I begin my day with whatever, because in water, every day is different.” Woods especially particularly enjoys dealing with turbidity, and her teaching with ORWA.

Varied duties

She runs lab tests and walks the plant, making sure the water is where it needs to be. She and her team constantly test to ensure that levels are spot-on. “Visually, you can see a lot,” she asserts. “You do it enough years, you can hear and feel it. You know if the water’s got a problem that particular day.”

After her rounds, if something — a pump or other piece of equipment — needs repair, she rolls up her sleeves and gets busy. She supervises operators Shawn Hilton, Stacey Humphrey, Rashad Marshall, Misty Swift and maintenance/operator Kenneth Moore.

This team oversees water intake from about 50 feet below the lake’s surface. The raw water is moved up to the conventional plant by three General Electric 5K44 motors with Peerless pumps. Raw turbidity averages 1.1 NTU.

“Our water is super clear, super cold and has very low alkalinity,” Woods says. “So we use alum and cationic polymer, lime for pH adjustment, and a touch of soda ash to help boost alkalinity. Our concrete  sedimentation basins take four to six hours for solids to settle out. The water runs through dual anthracite and 12 inches of sand. At the very end of our process, we inject chlorine and sodium hypochlorite for disinfection.”

The treatment process also includes U.S. Motors flocculators (Nidec) and sludge collector drives (SEW-Eurodrive Inc.).

A SCADA system (Micro-Comm) enables continuous real-time monitoring of the process. “They’re a wonderful company, always there 24/7,” Woods says. Finished water turbidity runs about 0.02 NTU.

“Alkalinity is our No. 1 concern,” Woods says. “I’ve seen our alkalinity hit zero, and anybody with a water treatment background knows on zero, you cannot get alum to work, or any chemical, for that matter. So we’re constantly checking alkalinity throughout the plant. Every day, every two hours.”

Looking sharp

When it comes to maintenance, “There are not a lot of challenges other than every couple of months, we take down one 250,000-gallon sedimentation basin, and usually three operators get in there to clean it with fire hoses.

“We’re very proud of how clean our plant is. It’s about 32 years old, but when you look around, you wouldn’t ever guess that. Cleanliness is something I push hard. We take great pride in our plant, its maintenance, and landscaping. Somebody is always painting or mowing or sweeping.

“We have a lot of tourism now, so appearance is more important than ever. It’s like if you pull up to a restaurant, you can tell from the outside if you want to go in. We take enough pride at the front gates that you know we’re going to have top-notch everything. We might be little, but we work hard for cleanliness.”

These high standards likely played out when Woods received a 2022 Excellence in Operations Award from the ORWA. “I was very pleasantly surprised,” she recalls. “I’ve won a few awards in the last several years, but this one was a shock. I’m very honored and humbled to receive it.”

Steady compliance

She believes a big factor in that win was her plant’s history of uncommonly steady compliance with Oklahoma’s Stage Two THMM and HAA5 process measurement: “At one time, we were probably the only county that was in compliance. A few years ago, we had to change up our treatment and ended up getting out, but we’re back in again. Oklahoma DEQ told me at one point, we were probably the only county that had done extremely well with it.

“If you’re in water treatment, whether a rural district or municipality, you try to stick together. Since the city sells water to a lot of smaller communities, if they have a problem they know to call and I’ll help them with paperwork or whatever. Broken Bow is a pretty good city to work for. They’re willing for me to help others.”

Woods developed that helpful attitude early on, emulating how she was treated by her earliest mentor, Hodge. She remembers her best advice: “If you turn this job into a career, you’ll never regret it. That’s the most truthful thing ever said to me. When I teach a class, that’s exactly what I tell everybody. The sky’s the limit in this field.”

Woods has a few other words of wisdom for those planning long water management careers.

“Don’t overreact. I feel the effects when I’m under the gun and things aren’t going well. Maybe somebody called out sick. I’ve worked a lot of nights lately. You just always say to yourself, ‘Take a deep breath and go slow.’

“Give yourself 15 minutes and realign, because at the end of it, we are here to make the best potable water a person possibly can, and that’s just what we’re going to do. You have to take on every problem, and you can solve it. If you don’t know the answer, there are people out there who can help you.”

She advises building a professional network of people who will pick up the phone when called and are ready to help solve problems: “Just remember, you’re not in this alone.”


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