Homer Alaska - Business

Story last updated at 6:45 PM on Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Honors: Water operator, wastewater system recognized

By McKibben Jackinsky
Staff writer


Photographer: McKibben Jackinsky, Homer NewsPhoto provided

Water-wastewater utility superintendent Todd Cook, left, and Joe Young, named Alaska Rural Water Association's "2011 Water Operator of the Year," work in the lab at the Homer water treatment plant on Skyline Drive.

At the Alaska Rural Water Association's 13th annual training conference held at the Millennium Hotel in Anchorage the end of October, city of Homer water operator Joe Young was honored as the "Water Operator of the Year" for an area with a population of more than 1,000. The city of Homer was recognized with an award for the "Wastewater System of the Year," also for an area with a population of more than 1,000.

"For Joe, the award is in recognition of his outstanding dedication to provide safe, potable water to the citizens of Homer," said City Manager Walt Wrede, adding that the wastewater system award noted its "outstanding performance to the community."

"There's always a lot of controversy over water-sewer rates, but here's some confirmation that we are talking about an excellent system," said Wrede.

The awards will officially be presented at the city council's Nov. 28 meeting.

Young has been with the city almost five years. He began as a mechanic, maintaining the water treatment plant and moved into the operator spot. He not only has achieved the level of certification required by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, but he also has exceeded it.

"I just found out I passed my Level III certification, so it's been a good month," said Young of receiving the award and attaining an additional certification level all in one month.

Young was taking advantage of the training offered at the conference when he was presented with the award.

"I had no idea about the award," said Young. "I was surprised."

Recipients of the annual awards are based on nominations from the field and input from Alaska Rural Water Association staff.

"Our staff works with these folks on a regular, ongoing basis as they travel throughout the state, so their input is thrown into the decision as well," said Robyn Dombroski, ARWA executive director.

As an operator, Young's time is divided between the water and wastewater treatment plants. He is part of a six-member staff — five operators and a maintenance person — that keep the plants operating, according to Carey Meyer, the city's public works director.

Installed about 20 years ago, Homer's wastewater treatment plant is "a live biological process," said Young of the deep-shaft activated sludge secondary treatment plant. It relies on two shafts measuring 500 feet deep beneath the treatment plant on Heath Street, south of the Sterling Highway. One of its advantages is that it requires less space than the former lagoon system.

"Drilling holes straight down is a smaller footprint for the plant," said Meyer.

The wastewater system treats an average of about .5 million gallons a day, but is designed to treat as much as 1.4 million gallons at peak flow for short periods of time.

"We do hit that peak a couple of times a year, generally during wet weather," said Meyer of an inflow caused by roof, footing and floor drains that individuals have tied into the sanitary sewer system. "That is a no-no and contributes to some pretty high flows during wet weather."

That increase is particularly evident during the winter, when the ground is frozen.

"We could end up spending millions of dollars to increase our capacity only to treat surface water, clean water that's being diverted into the system," said Meyer. "So, over the next few years, we will be working to educate people ... because in the end it uses up valuable sewer treatment plant capacity."

Additional water also comes into the system through filtration, such as cracks in pipes and manholes. To address that, the city is sealing manholes and has had a contractor working the last year and a half on sliplining, a process of pulling a liner inside older pipes to seal them and add strength.

There are an estimated 1,500 connections to the city's water and wastewater systems, some of them commercial and some residential, with an average 2.5-4.5 people per connection, said Meyer. As Homer's population grows with part-time residents in the summer, so do demands on the system.

This year's awards aren't the only ones Homer has received. In 2009, the water treatment plant was recognized by ARWA.

A project to add 88 lots along Kachemak Drive to the city's water and sewer systems is at a temporary standstill due to environmental concerns connected to weather. About 3,000 feet of pipe remain to be in installed in an area that can only be worked in during the winter.

"Later this winter we'll start that project up again and then shut down again and wait for summer, when we expect to complete the project by June or July," said Meyer, adding that a petition is currently being circulated to bring another 45 lots along Kachemak Drive into the systems, as well.

Some improvements are ahead for the city's water and sewer treatment plants that will improve odor control, a screening system and replacement of polymer injection equipment. Those are anticipated to be addressed next summer.

"Like (Young), our operators take this job personally. They take pride in running the treatment plants, not only to provide good drinking water for the community, but the sewer treatment plant that protects Kachemak Bay from pollution and waste," said Meyer. "We appreciate the fact that Alaska Rural water Association saw fit to recognize that our employees are doing a good job."

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.