Out of sight, out of mind

Tom Milstead/Torrington Telegram Torrington Water Department Senior Operator Matt Heilbrun examines the city’s reverse osmosis water treatment system. The RO system removes nitrates, radionuclides - also known as uranium, and other contaminants from the city’s water supply.

TORRINGTON – When people think about the heroes of public service, it’s highly likely that police and fire departments come to mind. 

It’s deserved. It’s hard to imagine the word ‘hero’ and not think of the roar of a police Interceptor and the wail of sirens racing to a call. In a desperate time, there’s no one you’d rather see than a firefighter in bunker gear reaching out with a potentially life-saving hand. 

They get the media coverage, their vehicles are made into toys, and police and fire TV shows, both real and scripted, dominate the TV guide. 

On the other side of the coin, you’ll likely never see a kid playing with a sewer main vacuum truck. 

The Torrington Water Department flies below the radar, and most of its work is under our streets – but the service it provides is essential to everyone living in the city. From school kids, to senior citizens, to the deer who drink out of the North Platte River – everyone and everything in between has at least some dependence on free-flowing, clean water. 

It is the most important resource in the world. In less fortunate countries, 80 percent of illnesses are linked to poor water and sanitation condition, according to thewaterproject.com. One in nine people on the planet do not have access to safe and clean drinking water, and one out of every five deaths of children age five and younger is due to a water-related illness. Of the ones who make it to school age, 443 million school days are lost each year due to water-related diseases. 

A person can survive three days without water. Half of the hospital beds in the world are occupied with people suffering from medical issues related to water. 

It’s the Torrington Water Department that ensures the people of our city don’t join those statistics. 

“Our primary concern is the water quality and the treatment of the wastewater,” TWD Foreman Chris Powell said. “We need to make sure we’re delivering a quality product to the consumer – that is my primary focus, to make sure everything is sent out to the distribution system and we’re monitoring that.”

A well-trained crew

Gov. Mark Gordon declared the week of Feb. 3 – 9 as Wyoming Professional Water and Wastewater Operator Week, and on Jan. 7 Torrington Mayor Randy Adams proclaimed the same in Torrington. The Torrington City Council vote was unanimous in favor of recognizing the water operators. 

It’s a small taste of recognition for the men who provide such an important service – and do so almost completely out of the public’s eye. 

“The water department has always been, as long as I’ve been involved with it, a very professionally run group,” Adams said. “They are driven by data – they don’t guess, they don’t make it up – they have data on almost every decision that they make. 

“I’ve always commended the water department because of their professionalism. Their staff is trained. They set examples for other departments.” 

That professionalism is essential with a mission as important and broad as the TWD’s. It sounds simple – find water, pump water, treat water and dispose of water. But Tom Troxel, TWD supervisor, said it’s a complex, necessary service that comes with a hefty price tag. 

“It costs money to pump it out of the ground,” he said. “Then it costs money to treat it. Then it costs money to pump it again to the storage tank. It costs money to maintain those storage tanks – that’s another thing we’ve got to do. Everything we do costs money. Every step of the way. 

“If you don’t have the infrastructure, you can’t support industry.”

That’s why Troxel, a 24-year veteran of the department, puts a heavy emphasis on the training his operators receive. He said that by the time they have completed all of their studying and testing for the four – and sometimes five – licenses necessary to be an operator, the time and education commitment is almost on par with a Master’s degree. 

“By the time you do the training, do the correspondence courses, get everything needed to take the test, and once you do all of that and pass the test, you have to maintain each license,” he said. “Every three years you have to get 24 hours of continuing education per license. Most of us here have four licenses. Some have five.”

To be an operator, candidates must have at least a high school diploma – and then it gets in-depth. 

“You need a high school diploma or the equivalent to become an operator,” Troxel said. “From there, it’s based off of classification. DEQ and EPA will come in and classify your systems on a number of things. 

“From the classification, that is what you have to test up to. For example, we’re a level four water system. That’s the highest in the state of Wyoming, because we have the water treatment. Some of us, we have to study and eventually take our level four water test – that requires 400 hours of continuing education and four years on the job.”

Above and beyond

All of that training helps the department’s nine employees oversee a system that draws water from three 150-foot wells near the Cottonwood Golf Course. It then transports that water via a 24-inch main to the water treatment facility, where it undergoes a reverse osmosis process, is chlorinated, then sent out into distribution system. 

The water is examined at nearly every point along the way. The raw well water already falls below the maximum contaminant level set by the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Environmental Quality and the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, but the TWD goes above and beyond, Powell said.  

“Right now, our raw source is just borderline from going over the MCL,” Powell said. “Our raw is still right at that level, but we treat it to make sure our water quality is good. We want to get that limit way below that threshold that is set by the EPA.”

The TWD handles the other side of the equation, too. 

Once water is used – whether it runs down a drain, gets flushed, whatever – it returns to the TWD for an extensive treatment process. The wastewater will make it’s way through the TWD’s lagoon aeration system, and by the time it’s released into the North Platte River, it’s actually a higher standard of water than can normally be found there. 

“It’s actually better than the standards of the river water,” Troxel said. “It’s clean water. It’s not by any means drinkable, but it could be with some minor treatment. It’s done all over the country now.”

The only treatment the wastewater undergoes is aeration, according to senior operator Matt Heilbrun, who has been at the TWD for 15 years. 

“The wastewater is pumped into first cell,” he said. “The water goes between four cells. There are 144 diffusers in first cell, blowing air constantly, second and third cell have 108 diffusers. It’s breaking down the larger particles in the wastewater and allowing them to settle out. When it gets to that final pond, it’s pure water going back to the river.”

The fourth stop for the wastewater is a polishing pond. There’s no aeration in the pond, but there are thousands of black plastic octagons that float in the water and keep it cool by deflecting the sun, ensuring  the water isn’t too hot when it’s returned to nature. 

The wastewater is tested in Casper, and it has to be able to support flathead minnows. 

“It’s to make sure fish can survive in the water,” Heilbrun said. 

No regular days

During the ongoing mission to keep everything running smoothly, there’s no regular day for water operators. 

“It’s something different every day,” Matt Heilbrun, senior operator, said. “You might come in and work on the computer one day. The next day, we might have a main break so you’re out there doing things.”

According to Troxel, the unpredictability is part of the job description. 

“There’s a little frame out in our lobby there that says ‘jack of all trades, master of none,’” Troxel said. “And that’s true – you’ve got to run heavy equipment, you’ve got to be able to program meters, you’ve got to be able to run PCs, you’ve got to be able to turn a wrench. It’s just so wide, so wide in our duties. We try and split that up here. 

“They have a tailgate meeting every morning. Every Monday we meet in the conference room and go through a safety brief and talk about all the work that needs done.”

Every operator has a sweet spot, Troxel said, and he’s able to deploy his recources based on those sweet spots. That wide range of duties is the difference between a big city department, and the room of versatile workers in Torrington. 

“That’s the difference between large and small,” he said. “Small systems like us have to have four licenses, because I have to be able to split these guys off and say ‘hey, we’ve got a main break to fix today. Go jump in the backhoe, grab the dump truck, and go out and fix that leak.” 

There’s definitely something unique to do every day, Powell said. 

“We do anything from monitor our reverse osmosis systems every day, to maintaining wastewater facilities,” he said. “We could be working on the collection system, sewer work, camera work, to pouring concrete to coming back in here and doing GIS work and mapping.”

Powell’s favorite days are in the summer, when he gets to be outside. His worst days are ones like he experienced this past Christmas season, when a water main broke on a 16-below winter day. 

But still, he enjoys his work. 

“They’re all good days,” he said. 

Heilbrun does, too. 

“I like knowing that we provide a service that people rely on,” he said. “We are concerned about the public health. We’re concerned that if somebody opens up their faucet to get a drink of water, that water is safe. I know people say it’s so expensive to have water – but anybody can have free water. All they have to do is take their five-gallon bucket down to the river and get free water. But do you want to drink that water? Is it safe to drink? We’re striving to provide a high quality of water.”

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Tom Milstead/Torrington Telegram Torrington Water Department Senior Operator Matt Heilbrun examines the city’s reverse osmosis water treatment system. The RO system removes nitrates, radionuclides - also known as uranium, and other contaminants from the city’s water supply.


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