September 2011, Vol. 23, No.9


Without operator skill, water quality goes down the tube

Jeanette Brown

Operators are the lifeblood of our industry. We can have a perfectly designed treatment plant, expertly built with the highest-quality equipment, but if we do not have trained operators, the plant will fail. Modern treatment plants are very complex and require a high level of skill to operate.

Yet, with the current economy, utility managers and governmental agencies are required to reduce training budgets or restrict travel to training events. In some states, certification programs are being eliminated to save money.

To me, this does not make sense and is counterproductive. Without trained operators, there is a higher probability of permit violations as well as equipment and process failures. The fines for violations far exceed the cost of training.

Being an operator is an incredibly rewarding job, and operators take much pride in what they do. But typically this is not recognized outside of our industry, so it is difficult to attract people into the profession. Today’s operators range from those with high school educations and GED diplomas to scientists and engineers with master’s and doctorate degrees. There are opportunities for everyone.

However, from outside often we are viewed as “Ed Norton” the sewer worker. This needs to change. It changes by having highly trained and certified operational staff.

So how do we promote the profession and ensure the highest-quality operators? The Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.) is taking a multi-step approach that includes recruiting, education, and professional development.

Work for Water

WEF, in partnership with the American Water Works Association (Denver), has developed the Work for Water project.

The motto is “Great Careers for a Great Cause.” As the program’s website states, “It’s the place where students and job seekers can explore green careers, and utilities will find a clearinghouse of resources for recruiting in the wonderful world of water.”

If you haven’t already visited the website,, I encourage you to do so.

Distance learning

WEF also continues to develop programs and training materials to ensure that operators have the necessary tools to produce the best-quality effluent possible. One of the most exciting of these programs is the distance learning program, which can bring training to operators regardless of their geographical location or inability to travel. All that’s needed is an Internet connection. WEF’s distance learning materials can be accessed at

WEF is working with each state to ensure that operators will be given continuing education credits (CEUs) for these courses to allow them to obtain higher levels of certification. Training will be developed for all levels of operations from fundamental to advanced. The distance learning website currently includes the following eight fundamental courses. Each contains a set of training modules and a final exam.

  • Activated Sludge
  • Disinfection
  • Fixed-film Systems
  • Natural Treatment Systems
  • Preliminary Treatment
  • Primary Treatment
  • Purpose and Fundamentals of Wastewater Treatment
  • Solids Handling

Distance learning couples with the excellent print training documents, such as Operation of Municipal Wastewater Treatment Plants: Manual of Practice No. 11 and its companion study guide, as well as Biological Nutrient Removal Operation in Wastewater Treatment Plants: Manual of Practice No. 29 and its companion study guide. These books give operators and trainers all of the materials necessary to ensure highly qualified personnel are operating our treatment facilities.


WEF also is actively working with Member Associations and other industry stakeholders on operator certification issues. Just recently, I was part of a 2-day, Operator Certification Summit, organized by WEF. (See related article.) It was a professionally facilitated meeting with 40 participants representing 20 WEF Member Associations (from New England to Hawaii), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Association of State and Interstate Water Pollution Control Administrators, the Association of Boards of Certification (ABC), and the National Rural Water Association (NRWA).

The summit was a great success, and it was interesting to hear how certification programs function differently from one state to the next. The most important message from the summit was the commitment of all of these groups to having properly certified, well-trained operators in our nation’s wastewater treatment plants.

Furthermore, everyone was in agreement that we need to elevate the status of operators. We need to do something so the general public recognizes how important operators are in protecting the environment and protecting public health.

Jeanette Brown is an adjunct professor of environmental engineering at Manhattan State College (Riverdale, N.Y.) and president of the Water Environment Federation (Alexandria, Va.).

©2011 Water Environment Federation. All rights reserved.