Human Side of Water Treatment Seen In 3 Washington State Award Winners

Human Side of Water Treatment Seen In 3 Washington State Award Winners
Dave Olson

Water treatment can be an anonymous profession and one largely taken for granted: customers turn on their taps and safe, good tasting water flows automatically. That’s what makes Tom Peadon, Gary Sale and Dave Olson special. 

The trio was honored recently by the Washington State Department of Health. Awards went to two outstanding water system operators and a system that has dramatically improved thanks to the efforts of a highly skilled operator who came out of retirement. 

Peadon, general manager and certified water operator, represented Belfair Water District #1 and helped restore the community’s faith in its drinking water after a leadership crisis and years of neglect. Sale, a certified water treatment plant operator, has ensured safe, reliable drinking water for state parks and water systems in the San Juan Islands, despite budget cuts and staff reductions. Olson, a management consultant and certified operator, went “above and beyond” to resolve nitrate pollution in Whatcom County. 

Tackling a system in chaos 

Belfair Water District #1’s transformation from a chaotic water system into a well-managed operation can be traced to Peadon, a 35-year water-industry veteran, who joined the troubled district about a year ago, having been general manager of a large water district in King County near Seattle. The North Mason County water system, with 550 connections, faced failing equipment, leadership turmoil and financial and legal woes. Peadon and the utility district’s three-member board of commissioners confronted those challenges head on and restored public confidence in the water system. 

“When I started, we had one reservoir online and four offline,” says Peadon, who started his career at the City of Yakima Water Treatment Plant in 1978. “Today, we have all five reservoirs operational. More important, the water meets all DOH standards. In fact, I just received our operating permit saying that our permit category is green, which is good, and that the system is substantially in compliance with drinking water standards.” 

To achieve those results, Peadon and a small team went through the process of cleaning the four water tanks that were offline to get them back in service. They also put one well back online, hired an engineering firm to help with hydraulic issues, retained a financial advisor and instituted a rate increase, which helped put the system on the road to recovery. Today, the district is in the process of updating chlorination equipment to improve its water treatment capabilities. 

“I feel like we’re finally in a maintenance and prevention mode rather than a crisis mode,” Peadon says. “The board has been fantastic. They brought me in and they’ve been great to work with. I think we’ve made tremendous progress.” 

Managing multiple systems 

Gary Sale received the Operator of the Year Award for excellent management of multiple water systems in the San Juan Islands. Sale manages state park water systems in San Juan County, provides support for five additional systems in the islands, and is a contract operator for more water systems. Moreover, the Washington State Parks employee has kept water systems safe and reliable despite budget and staff cuts. 

“I was shocked and honored at winning the award,” says Sale, who’s been a park ranger and spent 15 years as a water operator. "They’re very small plants; in fact, they’re designated as TNCs (Transient Non-Community), as a park would be, and gathered throughout the islands; some are remote and accessible only by boat.” 

That doesn’t faze Sale, who before moving to Orcas Island (a 5,000-acre park with three surface-water plants), lived on a 500-acre island with no electricity. Responding to a Parks Department request to manage the surface-water facilities, he volunteered and ended up as a water treatment plant operator for the San Juan Islands system. Now, he manages nine park-system water plants, six of which are surface water and three are groundwater. In addition, he manages two groundwater community systems and consults for several others. 

Facing budget cuts that cost him several operators, Sale developed strategies that help the park rangers and others who assist him do their jobs better. For example, he created seven written standard operating procedures (SOPs) that help park staff operate the systems safely and consistently. The SOPs provide the operators with a workable blueprint, so they can open a binder or go online and do routine maintenance and other tasks. 

Despite the challenges, Sale remains upbeat, citing a “great working relationship” with the DOH and regional engineer. “There’s so much variety running the water plants and distribution,” he says. “I have a cross connection control specialist certification, backflow assembly tester certification, water treatment plant and water distribution plant certification. And I get a chance to use all of them, which is great.” 

Going above and beyond 

Dave Olson, a water utility management and operations consultant and certified operator, received the Going Above and Beyond Award for his efforts to address nitrate contamination in Whatcom County. Olson initially volunteered his expertise to help the Department of Health find alternative sources of water for four threatened water systems that together serve more than 700 people. 

“I was surprised to get the award,” says Olson, who is licensed as a state certified water distribution manager level II, water treatment operator, cross connection control specialist, and has hundreds of hours of specialized water operator training. 

Originally a business consultant, Olson moved to the county 30 years ago and was introduced to the concept of small non-municipal water utilities. He found many were in turmoil and started helping them with their financial plans, water operator issues and field operations, toward becoming viable long-term water utilities. Over the years, he’s conducted numerous studies on alternative water sources, and instructed at the Washington Environmental Training Center, providing hundreds of hours in training for water systems in Whatcom County and around Washington state. 

For the last 10 years, Olson and his six-person company have been working with rural water utilities outside the City of Lynden in the northwest corner of Washington, which includes a large number of dairy farms and produces almost 75 percent of the nation’s raspberry crop. The challenge is that nitrates from fertilizers and manure that are heavily used in crop management have migrated over decades through the soil and into the water table. 

Commenting on his work, Olson says, “One of the provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act was that it reduced the maximum contamination level (MCL) for nitrates in drinking water from 50 to 10 ppm. When that happened, there were many systems that were OK one day and in violation the next, because treatment for nitrates is very expensive to build and operate.” 

In response, Olson has developed a plan featuring two different solutions. “Pipelines will be installed this fall to get water from the nearby cities on a wholesale basis and reverse osmosis water treatment systems, which will be done on a limited basis because of the costs involved,” he says. He’s also worked closely with the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund program to secure low-interest loans and subsidies because these systems with their nitrate-contaminated sources are considered the number one priority by the State DOH Drinking Water Program.

And refuses to take all the credit for the award. “I know states have operator of the year, but not ‘above and beyond’ recognition," he says. "It’s really an award for the entire community because it takes everybody to be involved to solve these tough problems.”


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