City of Union

Don Thomas was at work a bit earlier than usual. No catastrophes had required an early start to his day. He flipped on the lights, and looked around at the City of Union’s new water facility. He admired the new machinery, pumps, filter media, line feeders and chlorinators. The day was September 29, 2010. Union’s water supply switched to the new facility at 10 a.m. that morning.

Thomas is the water and wastewater operator for the city. As he checked settings on the new control panel, he was thinking of the past. “Five years ago was one of the lowest points of my life,” he said. That‘s when Hurricane Katrina hit. “Our water treatment plant was out for three days,” Thomas recalls. “We had no emergency generator and were without water and power for several days.”

Winds from Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc, but they also made this $2 million plant possible. “The hurricane’s eye passed two miles from here.” The hurricane caused structural damage to the building’s roof and foundation. Thomas knew that if another severe storm stripped off the roof, water damage would destroy the electrical equipment. Finally, it was his turn. Hurricane Go Zone money came through.

That autumn morning, Thomas was eager to start work. He is a Class B water operator and Class 2 wastewater operator and has worked in Union for 21 years. Hired at 25, he previously worked as a Navy boiler technician. His uncle, also named Donald Thomas and an employee with MsRWA, encouraged him to enter the field. Thomas has one employee, water and wastewater assistant David Anderson.

In Union, water comes from the Upper Meridian Aquifer. There are two 700 gpm aboveground wells and one 300 gpm well with a submersible pump. Two elevated storage tanks hold 250,000 gallons each. The city’s current usage is 450,000 gallons per day with a capacity of 1,500,000 gallons per day.

With both seniority and experience, Thomas looked forward to bringing his ideas to the planning and design process. He visited new treatment plants to get ideas. “An operator’s dream is to improve from what he’s seen at his old plant.”

The former plant was built in 1967, and the layout was less than perfect. “Everything looks great on an engineer’s drawing and when you put it in the real world, sometimes it doesn’t work so well. I used my life experience and my job experience as I worked with the engineer.”

He explains, “My pet peeve was that the hopper was upstairs and 50-lb. lime bags had to be carried up the stairs. Once you got there, you had to raise the bags above your head to put lime in the hopper.”

The hopper’s location in a corner made it difficult to clean the area. With the new design, lime bags are stored near the hopper and an elevated floor allows loading with a minimum of lifting. Efficiency was added with a more compact electrical control panel, and new SCADA software allows him to monitor how much water is in the elevated tanks.

Thomas also switched to a new filter media. “We’re removing iron in the water with green sand. That’s the reason we now add potassium permanganate to the water. It recharges the green sand like a magnet.”

“With the new system, I can take out a set of filters to work on while the other filter’s water goes through the system. There’s no downtime and it doesn’t change the water quality.”

In one area, Thomas stuck with the basics. “I had trouble with my old electrical upflow aerator,” he explains. “It stopped up all the time and needed a lot of maintenance.

The salesman sold me on a new natural draft aerator and said it would do the trick.

It saves energy costs.” An engineer is currently working on an updated map that will show locations of the system’s valves, water meters, and fire plugs.

Thomas looks to MsRWA for support with technical and regulatory issues. “The MsRWA helped me raise water rates when I was new to my job,” he notes. “They did a rate study for me and helped me present to my board in a professional and knowledgeable way. They had the information and knowledge I needed, and we were able to raise the rates.”

“My motto is ‘I get you coming and going’,” he says with a laugh. The city treats wastewater with an Artificial Marshland Treatment system. At a 16-acre site, 200,000 gallons of wastewater move through ponds and shallow lagoons each day. The area is heavily planted with vegetation including bulrush and arrowhead plants. “We’re using nature to treat wastewater. A NASA scientist came up with the idea,” says Thomas. A chlorine contact chamber also cleans wastewater. Thomas estimates that the AMT system saves $8,000 in annual energy costs.

He enjoys his job and is eager to share information with young operators. He’s even developing a class especially for them. New operators must build customer service, he says. “The public just knows that the water bill is too high or the water is brown. You have to ‘feel their pain’ when they have problems.”

He recommends keeping a sense of humor. Work hard, laugh, and serve customers with pride. Then you’ll do just fine.

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