How Collaboration Can Solve Problems at Water Treatment PlantsNo treatment plant can operate effectively without two valuable components: an operations staff and a maintenance crew. Both are integral to the day-to-day running of a plant, so if these two components don’t work well together, they risk causing failure of an entire process. However, with streamlined collaboration, operations staff and maintenance crews can work together to ensure smooth operation.

Whether operations, maintenance, engineering or management, each department brings valuable insight into running a water plant, and each is responsible for its communication with the other groups. Confidence and awareness are essential in communicating concepts and seeking solutions. Here are some guidelines to encourage effective collaboration:


Everyone involved in running a water plant should seek out networking opportunities with counterparts at other facilities. It’s important to keep up with developments in the industry and to develop understanding of how other plants operate. Networking can also prove a valuable resource in uncovering ways to ensure a more streamlined operation in one’s own workplace.

Open Communication Channels

Before any changes are made to a process, it’s important that everyone involved is updated on the plans. Whether making repairs, troubleshooting or upgrading a procedure, everyone in the operation should be invited to openly discuss the objectives and be heard. Because I work at an employee-owned company, this is something my team and I feel strongly about. If only half an operations team is involved, then half the data is missing. Simple solutions can go unrealized.

Take Responsibility

All staff members play a vital role in running a water plant; therefore, everyone is responsible for smooth operations. Have confidence in the value that your role brings to a plant and take responsibility for your own personal development. If you can create opportunities for other people or departments, then take the initiative to reinvest and recognize good work.

Teaching and Learning

When it comes to complex procedures, it helps if you don’t assume that your colleagues already know everything you know. By explaining things clearly and keeping your message simple, you ensure everyone understands and interprets information and instructions in the same way. Once everyone understands all perspectives, each team member will learn to value the insight of others and be invested in the project’s success.

Case Study

Recently, my team and I worked in collaboration with a contractor as part of a design-build team, working closely with operations and maintenance technicians at a wastewater treatment plant. The plant had an average 1 million gallons per day (MGD) capacity, used a nitrification process and was adding an anoxic basin to achieve denitrification.

During the project, our team encountered a setback in the form of a return activated sludge (RAS) pump being interrupted, meaning that bugs (the biological agents active in the process train) were not being properly caught in the clarifier and were not being sent back into the treatment process. The team quickly ordered rental pumps to transfer settled sludge from the bottom of the clarifier to the aeration basin, which reinstated the activating system. As a result of the basin configuration, we also had to stop the rotating mechanisms in the clarifier and aeration basins to allow for the suction hose. We increased airflow to the fixed grid air diffusers as a temporary measure and the rental RAS pumps and air grid were up and running within a few hours.

Operators saw the dissolved oxygen level in the aeration basins climb very high, to 5 milligrams per litre (mg/L) during the event, because the fixed grid blowers had to be manually controlled, which required constant operator attention.

During this setback, speed was critical, mechanics worked smoothly alongside operations, and as a team, we saved the plant from incurring violations. The operators made sure that the RAS rate and oxygen levels were correct to support nitrification and denitrification, and they maneuvered the plant through extreme conditions. The technicians also worked nonstop, as they were responsible for creating the environment the bugs needed to do their job.

The operations team consistently monitored the air, chemical and recycle rates during the incident. The maintenance staff relied on the preventive measures they had in place, meaning the equipment worked as it should have in the most demanding conditions. They also made the mechanical adjustments that operations needed during the upset.

Thanks to a streamlined collaboration based on open communication and trust, this project was completed successfully and every setback was overcome. I wrote a more detailed account of this in my article Communication Is a Simple Key to Unlocking Big and Small Problems at Treatment Plants, which you’ll find on page 46 of Georgia Operator’s March edition. What are your experiences of collaboration at water treatment plants? Can you think of any ways you could improve your department’s collaboration with others? It would be great to hear your thoughts on collaboration and its impact in the workplace.

Rebecca Clay is a project manager and process engineer in Burns & McDonnell’s Water Group. She specializes in designing water and wastewater treatment facilities. To reach Rebecca, send her an email at