Of all the valued public servants in our communities, you’d be hard pressed to find any whose duties affect more people than water system operators. Every single one of us relies on them, for they are the ones tasked with ensuring that the public has access to clean drinking water, and safe drinking water is critical to the overall public health of everyone.
“As a colleague likes to share, a drinking water operator will influence the lives of thousands more people than a medical doctor by providing safe drinking water,” says Chris McMahon, one such operator who earned his Eagle from Troop 321 in Hutchinson, Kansas.
McMahon started his career in the industry as a laboratory technician monitoring drinking water, storm water and wastewater in Hutchinson. It was during this time that he became a certified drinking water and wastewater operator.
Later, he managed the wastewater treatment plants for the city of Junction City, Kansas, and at one point was responsible for all drinking water production and wastewater treatment for Fort Riley, a U.S. Army installation in Kansas.
He currently serves as an area manager for Woodard and Curran, an integrated science and engineering firm that specializes in water and environmental projects, overseeing several projects operating facilities.
There’s a merit badge for that
The valuable role of water professionals is spelled out in the Public Health merit badge pamphlet:
Unsuitable water can cause infection and disease. Some water can contain contaminants like lead, mercury, and pesticides. It can also harbor microorganisms that cause diseases such as cholera, salmonellosis, and hepatitis. Drinking water must be treated and monitored.
Requirement 3 of Public Health is to discuss the importance of safe drinking water in terms of the spread of disease. Requirement 5a is to visit a municipal wastewater treatment facility.
Unsafe drinking water can cause methemoglobinemia in infants (often called “blue baby” syndrome because it affects the color of their skin).
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are chemicals used in a variety of consumer products, but if they make their way into our drinking water at unsafe levels, they can cause cancer.
Hazardous algal blooms release toxins that can also affect humans if not removed from drinking water.
Without the diligent work of water and wastewater operators, these chemicals and nutrients would cause immense public health concerns.
“It provides a great sense of pride that I can be directly responsible for providing a community safe, clean drinking water and am able to protect the environment through treatment,” says McMahon.
Touching every aspect of life
How drinking water is treated in your community depends on the quality of the water that enters the treatment plant. Think about how you would filter water from a stream in the backcountry — only on a much, much larger scale.
Water from all city water supplies is tested regularly. Federal and state governments have strict standards that must be maintained for pH (acidity), color, particulates (small particles), taste and chemicals.
Drinking water is not the only water that must be treated. The treatment of wastewater is just as important. After all, the water you flush down the toilet ultimately — after a lot of treatment — finds its way into our waterways.
“Who wants to swim in sewer water?” says McMahon.
The heroes of the wastewater treatment process are what professionals like McMahon call the bugs — tiny organisms that break down sewer water. It’s complicated, but basically, several different kinds of microscopic life can make wastewater safe again.
It’s the job of McMahon and other professionals to monitor treatment plants to make sure all the bugs are doing their jobs.
“The water industry offers a unique ability to affect the communities that you work in,” says McMahon. “Water — in one way or another — touches nearly every aspect of life.”