Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Water Jobs: A Visit to the Urbana Champaign Sanitary District

In the latest addition to our Water Jobs series, we’re joined by Rick Manner, the Executive Director at the Urbana Champaign Sanitary District, who shares his expertise on sanitation engineering and his interest in green solutions to environmental problems. Prior to his role in Urbana-Champaign, Rick spent most of his 24 years of wastewater management in Elgin, IL. A University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign graduate in chemical engineering (BS) and environmental engineering (MS), Rick is a lifelong Cubs fan, which he says means he “always expects the best, but know[s] that it is unlikely to happen.”  

Would you explain what the Executive Director at the Urbana Champaign Sanitary District does?
I provide the day-to-day administration of the district.  We employ 50 people to treat the sewage for Urbana, Champaign, the University of Illinois, Savoy, and Bondville.   

I report to the board of trustees, which provides the political oversight for the executive director and staff.  I recommend and write policy the board may adopt. 

I directly oversee four other directors who work with operations, maintenance, engineering, and administration.  I develop long-term planning for budget, facilities, and regulatory compliance.

How many treatment plants do you oversee, and do they treat different types of wastewater, say residential or industrial, or both?
We operate two treatment plants.  Both treat a mixture of all types of sewage from the community.  (Industrial sources are obliged to pretreat their flows so that they are compatible with the treatment operations.) 

Also, as a point of information, the district owns and maintains 25 pump stations, about 10% of the local sewers in neighborhoods just outside of Urbana and Champaign, and all of the interceptor sewers – the large diameter sewers that intercept smaller sewers on their way to our treatment plants.  I mention these because, from an asset management standpoint, they comprise a third asset that is just as important and valuable as the two treatment plants.

Where does the treated water from the Urbana-Champaign treatment plants go?
We discharge our treated water (effluent) to the creeks that our treatment plants are next to: the Saline Branch of the Salt Fork and the Copper Slough.  Ultimately these are feeders to the Vermillion River and the Kaskaskia River, respectively.

Does the amount of water released by the plant change from season to season?
The amount released is equal to the amount that is received on a given day.  What goes in comes out.  Since the amount received depends upon soil moisture and recent precipitation, our flows are strongly influenced by the amount of precipitation in any season.

What kind of training and experience did you need to be qualified for this type of position?
An executive director can have various qualifications.  Usually you bring some strength in one of the areas that you oversee.  This is especially true at a facility of this size (50 employees), or smaller.  With that, you pick up some of the workload in that sub-area [i.e. operations, maintenance, engineering, and administration].  If you lack that, you are typically more of a generalist with a background in administration.  Some executive directors come from experience in law, organized labor, or with one of the major industries in town.

Since your background is in engineering, would you explain how you became interested in engineering, and why environmental engineering?
I have always enjoyed and had some proficiency with math, chemistry, technical issues, problem solving, and environmental issues.  Obtaining a chemical engineering degree seemed like one of the tougher technical problems to solve at college, and the salary looked good, too.  It didn’t hurt that chemists and chemical engineers learn how to make things change color, burn, or explode.  So I started with chemical engineering. 

As I finished my BS degree, I did not have a job in hand, and I had really enjoyed the environmental engineering classes I had taken in my final three semesters of undergraduate school.  I asked an environmental engineering professor if I could work with him as a graduate student.  He had an opening, and so I began working on a master’s degree in environmental engineering.

I feel that working for the environment is giving back to society.  Working in this way appeals to me, because it is using my talents and interests in an area that I think is important for us to do better than we have been.  When I evaluated the various branches of environmental work, I found that wastewater treatment has the greatest direct impact on environmental health.

On behalf of our student audience, could you tell us if engineering allowed you to enjoy any exciting adventures, and what were they?
For me solving any problem is quite a thrill.  I am not sure I would use the words “exciting adventures,” but that is very satisfying for me.

Solving a bigger problem with permanent implications is more rewarding than only working on small, temporary problems.  So moving up in my responsibility has allowed me to be a part of more complex problem solving.  By helping design and develop the best treatment plant that I can, I am solving how we get wastewater treated economically and efficiently in Urbana, Champaign, and the area generally.  We work on these problems thinking with a 50-year and longer perspective.  We are shaping what the community will become. 

In addition, as an executive director at a facility that is a leader in the industry, I hope that I am a part of solving national and international environmental issues.  Improving the aquatic environment, climate change, and energy efficiency are all problems worth my work.

We’ve read that you believe sanitation engineering is the original green industry—would you elaborate on that for us?
Sustainability, or “living green,” is basically doing everything in a cyclical way.  If we recycle something 100%, we are being very sustainable, or very green. 

As a sanitary district, for 90 years, our whole reason for existence is to take billions of gallons of sewage every year, a waste product that can spread disease, and eliminate the disease potential.  We do that by cleaning the sewage, separating the water and the solids and treating them.  When we are done the water can be safely returned to the aquatic environment and the solids can be used as a fertilizer and soil conditioner.  This completes the cycle, with 100% of what you give to us going to good use.

One area that we have not been completely self-sufficient has been energy usage.  To do our job, my energy budget is about $800,000 per year.  We have been as energy efficient as possible to save money.  We currently produce 90% of the natural gas we need for heating and 35% of the electricity we use.  Our goal is to improve these numbers without wasting money, another important resource.

How do the treatment plants produce natural gas and electricity?
It all comes from treating the solids.  Once they are separated from the main flow of water, we thicken them and then treat them in anaerobic (without air) digesters.  This is another simple natural process.  We cover the tanks holding the solids.  The covers prevent oxygen from getting in, keeping the process anaerobic.  Over the course of several days in these conditions, some of the microbes produce methane, which is often called natural gas, or around here, digester gas.  We use the term digester gas to differentiate the gas we produce from the gas we purchase, because functionally they are almost identical.

That digester gas is used as the energy source for generators that we operate.  The generators produce the electricity.  Burning the gas in the generators also means they heat up quite a bit.  We transfer that extra heat into water that is used to both heat water and buildings within the plant.

We’ve also heard a lot of discussion about a predicted “brain drain” in the water treatment industry when baby boomers retire over the next ten years. Do you see that happening at the Urbana Champaign Sanitary District?
I don’t attribute the very real retirement surge that we are seeing as being related to baby boomers as much as to the fact that it’s been 40 years since the passage of Clean Water Act of 1972.  With that law there was a big hiring surge in the wastewater industry, and environmental work, generally.  The best and the brightest in that group of workers excelled in the field and became leaders in the industry.  Many of those people were fresh out of high school or college in the 1970s, so they are retiring as a group. 

At UCSD we had five retirements in one year, whereas we typically had one retirement every few years in the twenty years before now.  We expect two or three retirements per year to be the new normal for a while.  So we are seeing that happen, but we will hire good people and get through this.

What kinds of opportunities or challenges do you think this will create in the industry?
There will be lots of changes and lots more room for promotion than there has been before now.  So this will behave much more like a growth industry even though it is quite mature.

Succession planning – planning personnel decisions for the next several years – will make the changes less traumatic.  Hiring good people is important.  Training of staff who will remain is essential.   

Picking the right people to fill positions of leadership is very important.  So far, for places of my size, I have found that filling in who will be THE leader in a sub-group is often pretty obvious because the best in a group of experienced personnel is often obvious.  That leader is often the “right-hand-man” of the current leader.  That’s the person who gets things done.  Finding the person to replace the “right-hand-man” is often the most difficult decision. 

And how can those interested in future water careers develop their skills to meet these challenges and opportunities?
First, hone your technical skills.  If you don’t have them you probably won’t be able to work here.  Even if you don’t like math or science, learn as much as you can.  Next, practice good communication skills.  If you can’t effectively and efficiently communicate what you know, you are less valuable to any employer.  This can be done as a student or in other areas of life.  Finally, seek out ways to improve your critical decision-making.  This can come from athletics, mental challenges, or other areas.  Try to increase the complexity of the problems you solve.  Don’t just do what is easy or you’ve done before.  Challenge yourself to make decisions and accept the only way to avoid failure is to never try something challenging. 

What do you wish people understood or appreciated about wastewater treatment in Illinois?
Your day-to-day decisions matter to the environment.  What you buy, use, and dispose of all matter.  Think globally in all of your actions.

We only treat what you choose to make a waste.  We do it as efficiently as possible, but there are unavoidable costs.  As a society, we should choose to pay these costs because the future of the aquatic environment is worth it.  We should not drain its value just because we can.

If someone wanted to visit the treatment plants, how would he or she go about doing that?
Our tours typically last an hour, but can run longer if there are lots of questions.  We held an open house last October 6th with six hours of displays and tours available.  We had about 200 people show up.  I considered it a great success, so we will continue the tradition.

This year’s open house will be on September 21, 2013 from 9 AM to 3PM.   There is no advance notice necessary, just come by and we’ll show you what we do.  We aim to make every open house more interesting than the last one.

We also offer scheduled tours for classes and other groups of high school and older groups throughout the year.  We give about 50 tours per year that way to another 300 visitors.  Calling our phone number of (217) 367-3409 and saying that you’d like a tour is the way to start.  We like to know how many people to expect, what their ages are, and what background they have regarding wastewater or the environment, to give the most appropriate tour possible.

And finally, forgive us if this is a rude question, but we’re so curious: do people ever respond with an “ew, gross” when they find out what you do, and how do you handle that?
The most common response is that people are interested in my work, because it is an area that many people have no idea about.  I certainly enjoy that response.

The “ew, gross” response is also quite common, and I sort of enjoy the challenge of turning that person into somebody who finds my work interesting, even if they could never do it.  If they want to stay perpetually grossed out, I can’t change that, and I let them live in ignorance. 

The first tour that I ever gave was to a classroom of 20 youngsters who got off the bus and plugged their noses and were all saying “ew, gross.”  I pointed out that the gross aspects of the sewage are what we treat, and they would not be grossed out once we got to the end of our plant.  And at least most of them weren’t.

I explained that before there was sewage treatment, the gross sewage was dumped straight into the river untreated.  That made the whole river gross.  Today, our treatment cleans the sewage enough so that they can go by rivers without holding their noses or fearing that exposure to the water will give them typhoid fever or cholera.  These were waterborne diseases that regularly killed thousands of people in Illinois.  It is nice knowing that sanitary districts are so effective at our jobs that most people have never known anybody who has had these diseases.