Raising the Bar
- April 6, 2013
- Posted by: Eric & Patti Wahlberg
- Category: From the Mind of Eric Wahlberg
As operators, we consider ourselves professionals, as well we should. Although a slight exaggeration, I believe a wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) operator protects more lives in a day than a doctor will save in his/her professional career. Consider this plot of the typhoid fever deaths per 100,000 in the U.S. dating back to 1900. The simple use of chlorine for disinfection has had a profound impact on the public’s health. Wastewater and water treatment plant operators should be proud. Very proud.
I started as a janitor at the Silverthorne-Dillon Joint Sewer Authority in April 1978. Once on the job, I quickly became aware of the rift that exists between operators and engineers. I think of this gap in terms of the following graphic, which plots Process & Plant Sophistication as a function of Time, starting in 1978.
As water quality professionals, we are doing things using activated sludge, for example, we couldn’t even have thought about in 1978. The E-for-engineers curve in the figure captures the vast amount of research and engineering that has been done in the last 35 years to further the understanding and application of the science of wastewater treatment. This science is being designed into WWTPs every day to meet increasingly stringent discharge requirements—water, air, land—while, at the same time, providing for the cost effectiveness increasingly demanded by cash-strapped ratepayers. The
result: an exponential increase in process and plant sophistication that will surely continue for decades to come.
In stark contrast, the O-for-operators curve in the figure reflects a hugely troubling fact: the wastewater certification exams I took in Colorado in the early 1980s are not substantially different than the exams taken today by aspiring operations professionals.
Likely there are many reasons for the fact that these curves aren’t even close to one another. At the forefront, I believe, is that we, as operators, don’t demand more of ourselves. Operators largely loath learning the math and science that define the very biological, chemical, and physical processes we use to treat wastewater. I am frequently scolded when I dare include an equation in any presentation I do for operators. I was told by a student in one of my classes last week: “I hate math. I can’t do math. I do not want to progress beyond California Grade III certification.” As obviously self-defeating as this is, it is so common, it only serves to hold down that operator curve for her and, indeed, all operators. We can’t stand for this anymore: in order for us to be accepted as the professionals we think we are, we must raise our bar. Can you imagine having a nurse prepare an injection for you knowing (s)he always hated math and never could do math?
I believe getting the E- and O-curves on top of each other will do more for clean water in the U.S. than the Clean Water Act—PL 92-500—itself. As operators, we need to understand and embrace the science of wastewater treatment and the math that comes with it. While visual observations will continue to be an important confirmation of process performance, as operators we need to quantify—with hard numbers having known statistical accuracy—process performance to better understand the financial ramifications of our process control strategies. In short, if state certification exams and programs aren’t going to do it for us, we need to raise our own bar to attain the professional status we so rightfully deserve.
And so, in this inaugural blog, I want to re-state WasteWater Technology Trainers’ (WWTT’s) mission statement seen elsewhere on this website: “To transform today’s wastewater treatment plant operators into tomorrow’s water quality professionals by providing high-energy, interactive, quality classroom training grounded in scientific principals, mathematical fundamentals, and process engineering advancements.” Also, we invite you to share your own thoughts on this electronic page consistent, or not, with our mission statement. Together, we will make ourselves better stewards of the environment and better keepers of the public’s money entrusted to us.