From Skier to Water Technology Expert

Long ‘run’ at Casper, Wyo., college leads to development of comprehensive water certificate programs
From Skier to Water Technology Expert
Bill Mixer, director, Environmental Training Center, Casper College, Casper, Wyo.

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It was perhaps one of the more unusual benefits used to attract job applicants. But there couldn’t have been a more enticing offer for Bill Mixer back in 1978 than the free annual ski pass offered by the Public Works Department in Teton Village, Wyo. The position was running the water and wastewater systems for Jackson Hole Ski Resort, which marked the beginning of Mixer’s career in the clean water industry. 

During his five years in that role, Mixer also helped bring a new treatment plant online to serve the ski resort at Teton Village in Jackson Hole. While attending one of many training workshops during that time, Mixer met an instructor from Casper College in Casper, Wyo., who eventually convinced him to become the state’s wastewater technical assistance provider, a position at the college that would be funded by the U.S. EPA under its 109(B) program for state wastewater training centers and 104(G)(1) funds for technical support for treatment plants in the same states. 

With over 30 years in the industry under his belt, Mixer has taught, advised and worked with wastewater and water treatment operators with every imaginable amount of training, experience … and even inexperience. There’s no question that he has seen it all in his role as an educator and a technical support resource for water and wastewater facilities across the state. Which makes his view on the benefits of certifying operators in the technologies they manage or operate instead of granting general licenses so compelling. He recently shared his experience and ideas in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator

TPO: What’s the history of Casper College’s water and wastewater curriculum training programs? 

Mixer: For many years before the EPA funding became available, Casper College offered a week-long training course — once in spring and once in fall — to help operators from around the state pass their licensing exams. When I took over 30 years ago, we re-evaluated the program and discovered that the course lacked a set curriculum and the material was often too broad for the specific needs of a wastewater treatment plant operator, or a water system operator. In fact, the material covered in each course varied with whoever was presenting it. 

TPO: What changes were made? 

Mixer: We discovered that there wasn’t really a whole lot of difference in the pass or failure rates among those who did and those who didn’t take the course. So, that meant we probably weren’t delivering a curriculum of much value. We decided to rework the curriculum to introduce specific CEU courses such as disinfection, water treatment, activated sludge, or other topics we felt were needed. At that point, we decided the program was much more robust and worthy of college credits, so it became a degree program. 

TPO: Can you describe your degree program today? 

Mixer: Over the past few years, we found we didn’t have that many students pursuing the full degree program, so we changed the program once more. Today, Casper College offers Environmental Science Degree and Certificate programs with two certificate programs each in Water Treatment Plant Operation and Distribution System Operation  and Wastewater Treatment Plant and Collection System Operation. Certificates in the collection and distribution systems require nine credit hours, and water and wastewater treatment certificates both require 12 credit hours. 

TPO: What does the curriculum consist of today? 

Mixer: Math skills are pretty important to both wastewater treatment and water collection and distribution jobs. But math isn’t something everyone’s had a lot of depending on their prior schooling and work experience, so advanced math skills are a key component of both course sequences. We also cover general safety, trenching and shoring, and confined-space entry. The Underground Utility locator certification is also part of the water distribution and collection program. 

TPO: Given the challenges for those in the industry to find time for training — even the occasional reluctance of municipalities to support training — do you offer any of these programs online?

Mixer: Absolutely. We put a lot of effort into ensuring that those who work for a living can take advantage of these courses including online curriculum that includes videos, reading, work assignments and quizzes. Many of our courses are available online and can be completed over the 16-week semester at their own speed. Some in-classroom courses are ‘blocked’ to accommodate those who can’t be away from the job for an entire week. For just a one-credit course, they might be here for two days straight. But for the math course, which provides two credits, they’re here for two days of classroom, off for two weeks, then back for two final classroom days. Depending on the class, we may also take in a tour of our local water system facilities here in Casper. 

TPO: Who is your target student? Does Casper College actively recruit students for wastewater treatment and water distribution careers? 

Mixer: Our primary target is people who are interested in entering the field and becoming employed in a treatment or collection plant. Others come to us — pretty much from within our own state — for help passing our state licensing exam. Overall, we are mostly serving those already working in a plant somewhere in Wyoming because unfortunately, after 25 years, the EPA 104(G)(1) grant that funded state trainers ended four years ago. 

TPO: How many students have gone through the program? How far do they travel to attend your programs? 

Mixer: We’ve had hundreds who have taken one or two classes without wanting the full curriculum completion, and learned what they needed to get their license. In the certificate program we’ve had another dozen or so complete the program over the past couple years, with another dozen currently taking the courses. Most of these come from communities across Wyoming, although students in our utility locator program come from across the country. 

TPO: What is the utility locator program? 

Mixer: We provide certifications in underground utility locating and are one of the few public educational programs in the country doing so. People hear about it through word of mouth or learn about us on the Internet. The program is a public/private partnership that was created with our state’s One Call program and a private company (Staking University). We train and certify people to use electromagnetic locating equipment to locate underground utilities. We also offer a Back Flow Tester certification program with the American Society of Sanitary Engineers that we funded through our drinking water grant from EPA Region VIII. 

TPO: How does your program prepare students for meeting Wyoming’s wastewater treatment or water system operator certification requirements? 

Mixer: I tailor my classes very specifically — especially the online ones — to the rules and regulations they absolutely have to understand in our state. For instance, with respect to drinking water, we’re the only state in the country without state primacy and where the EPA administers drinking water regulations. We ensure they have a good understanding of NPDES requirements. 

TPO: Are there any gaps in the program you’d like to address or see change? 

Mixer: Nationwide, there are a lot of small systems out there. These jobs are a huge responsibility, and I’d like to see more of those working in the industry get quality training. We could also work harder to attract more people to these careers. These are good paying jobs and available almost anywhere you want to live. Water and wastewater treatment plant operators were among our first environmental stewards and they operate one of the last lines of defense for the quality of the water that goes into and comes back out of our nation’s streams and waters. 

TPO: What do you feel the industry could do to improve operator training so there are better trained or certified people managing our nation’s water? 

Mixer: If I could change anything, I’d like to see operators required to complete actual certification programs versus merely by passing a test to become a licensed operator. It makes more sense to me to certify and license people to run the specific technology they will operate — whether it’s a license for a trickling filter, disinfection system, or processing activated sludge. It’s no different than automobile technicians who must get certified in brakes, engines or cooling systems. 

As an educator, it makes more sense to me to require operators to earn a license for the technology they actually work on or for which they are responsible, than to license them for learning a little bit about a lot of things. 



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