Bob Watson of Decorah, right, with Decorah Wastewater Treatment Plant Supervisor Mike O'Hara at the plant in Freeport. Watson has organized an effort to recognize and educate the state's water and wastewater workers and is helping to organize a governor's proclamation signing event in Ames Thursday.(Decorah Newspapers photos by Sarah Strandberg)
Bob Watson of Decorah, right, with Decorah Wastewater Treatment Plant Supervisor Mike O'Hara at the plant in Freeport. Watson has organized an effort to recognize and educate the state's water and wastewater workers and is helping to organize a governor's proclamation signing event in Ames Thursday.(Decorah Newspapers photos by Sarah Strandberg)

A Decorah man has made it his mission to recognize friends of the environment who aren't always appreciated and make sure there's a qualified group to replace them when they retire.

As a direct result of his work, Governor Terry Branstad will sign a proclamation at the Ames Wastewater Treatment Plant Thursday acknowledging the state's water and wastewater workers.

And starting this fall, after nearly a 30-year absence, Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) will again offer a water and wastewater degree program.

"When you think of wastewater workers, it's always kind of a negative deal. A water and wastewater worker will do more environmental work in 24 hours than most environmentalists do in a year. What they do for the state is extremely important, and they're not really recognized for it," said Bob Watson of Decorah.

Watson deals with Iowa and surrounding states on wastewater issues as owner of Watson Brothers. He is a sales representative for manufacturers and service providers in the wastewater industry. He's also a member of the Iowa Water Environment Association (IWEA), an organization of professionals committed to the education and advancement of water quality and water pollution control techniques. 

Watson has been pursuing a governor's proclamation recognizing water and wastewater workers since the Culver administration.

The language for the document the governor will sign Thursday was written by Bill Stowe, public works director for Des Moines, and Jenny Puffer, an engineer with the Des Moines Water Works.

The proclamation states: "Recognizing that the state of Iowa's wealth of natural resources has been threatened by the degradation of surface and groundwaters, the water and wastewater workforce of Iowa have dedicated themselves to applying environmental passion and science to enhance drinking and recreational waters of Iowa. Their applied environmentalism continues to be a vital element in improving the quality of life and preserving and protecting public health in our state; and promoting sustainability in our way of living."

Watson is organizing the proclamation event, along with Ames city officials. Decorah Wastewater Treatment Plant Supervisor Mike O'Hara plans to attend.



Shortage

In recent years, Watson has become aware of a shortage of qualified workers in the industry.

Kirkwood Community College dropped its water and wastewater program a few years ago, he said, although the college still offers an online program. It was the last community college in the state to offer it.

Many of today's water or wastewater operators were trained in the 1970s through the Clean Water Act, according to Watson.

As those workers began reaching retirement age, he became concerned about skilled workers filling those positions. To help make students aware of the field as a career option, he formed an IWEA committee 10 years ago that provides free, science-based supplemental curriculum to K-12 science teachers.

"It's (the field) something they can get an education in and stay where they grew up. Every small town has water," he said.

He has presented on the topic at the Iowa Science Teachers Conference annually and twice at the Iowa Academy of Science annual conference.

"More than 8,000 people in the state work in the industry, including regulators, engineers, construction workers, private industries, manufacturers, operators and sales people like myself," Watson said. "There are 3,500 licensed operators, and a lot more people work at plants. More need to be licensed. We're losing them faster than we can replace them."



Approached Denson

So Watson approached DMACC President Rob Denson, the former president of Northeast Iowa Community College in Calmar and Peosta, about filling the void by offering a program at his college. Denson thought it was a good idea.

It might seem an unlikely partnership.

Because, as the story Denson is fond of telling goes, Watson is the reason he left Northeast Iowa.

The two found themselves on opposite sides of topics such as an ethanol plant proposed for Winneshiek County in 2001.

Denson led a committee that brought a $20 million ethanol plant bond issue before county voters. In addition to county funds, the plant would have been built with private investments and NICC would have received some of the plant's proceeds.

Watson was vocal in his opposition to the ethanol plant due to environmental concerns about raising more corn and the process of producing ethanol. He also didn't want the county to lose money if the plant folded.

Voters turned down the ethanol proposal and Denson ended up being hired by DMACC.

"Had it (ethanol plant bond) passed, I would have been so engaged in making sure it was a success, I probably would not have taken it (the DMACC) job," Denson said.

But Denson considered Watson a friend even then as he does now.

"There's no reason not to be friends. Even though we disagreed on some things ... we both believe in Iowa and helping train workers in career paths that lead to good jobs. We're both supportive of environmental issues. There are so many things we have always agreed on. Even as we argued both sides of the ethanol plant issue, it was done in a cordial and respectful manner," Denson said.

"Because of my associations with Rob, we got to know each other pretty well," Watson said.

Denson had Watson work with Scott Ocken, dean of technology at DMACC, and Watson helped form a committee that included representatives of IWEA, the Iowa Rural Water Association, Iowa Water Pollution Control Association, the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities, America Water Works Association and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to develop a water and wastewater program.

It will be offered this fall, and 20 students are already enrolled, Denson added.

"It's the only face-to-face program in the state," he said.

DMACC can partner with Kirkwood's online program, Denson said.

Watson said students could take prerequisite courses at their local community college and then transfer to DMACC to complete the water and wastewater degree courses.

"We have a very good articulation agreement -- anyone who wants the degree can work with us. So a student at NICC or anywhere else in the state can get credits toward the degree and then transfer to us. The goal is not to get more students at DMAAC, it's to get more workers to serve the industry and to help students who want to get into good jobs," Denson said.

"Community college education is based on demand. We don't create programs where businesses aren't going to hire or students are not going to come in," he said. "There are opportunities opening up in water and wastewater treatment."

Denson said Watson made a convincing argument for bringing back the water and wastewater curriculum, explaining the college doesn't add new programs without careful scrutiny.

"Had it not been for his encouragement, support and consultation with us, I can say with 100 percent certainty it (the water and wastewater program) would not be launching this fall," Denson said. "We appreciate the opportunity he's given us to start this program."

Watson credits Denson for helping make the new curriculum a reality.

"It wouldn't have happened unless he pushed it," Watson said, explaining Denson put him in contact with all the right people.

"I'm a firm believer everything works out for the best. It's an exciting project - it's good for the whole area," Denson said.

After the water and wastewater workers proclamation is signed, those workers will be recognized annually the last week in July, Watson said. In conjunction with the week, IWEA members will ask Iowa's 960 incorporated communities to contribute $50 to a scholarship fund for Iowa students pursuing education in the water/wastewater field, who would work in Iowa. Scholarship funds also will be raised through the DMACC Foundation, Watson said.

Decorah City Administrator Jerry Freund drafted a sample resolution the IWEA members can take to their communities.

"I think what Bob and his organization is doing is certainly a worthwhile endeavor to advance the knowledge and skills of professionals who work in the water and wastewater treatment field," Freund said.

"It's an essential public service that doesn't get recognized very much, and it's critical to the environment, keeping water ways clean and treating wastewater appropriately. It's a sophisticated field and requires a good deal of knowledge. Anything that can be done to advance their skills and make education available is important."



Good news

O'Hara was happy to hear about the new DMACC program.

He received his water/wastewater degree from Kirkwood before the college ended its traditional program.

"That's wonderful news, because in Iowa we have a shortage of licensed operators ... we're losing them left and right," O'Hara said.

"With that education coming back into play, it will be a lot easier to get those licenses again ... we don't want to go backward in this field," he said.

O'Hara is pleased the governor will be signing a proclamation recognizing the water and wastewater workers of Iowa.

"The general public doesn't have a clue about what we do at all ... We take over a million gallons a day of polluted water and we purify it and discharge it back into the Upper Iowa River," O'Hara explained.

The Decorah plant consistently has a removal rate of organic and suspended solids of 98 to 99 percent; the state requires at least an 85 percent reduction.

"The Department of Natural Resources comes and inspects us every two years and writes up a report saying we're doing an outstanding job with effluents. The discharge is crystal clear," O'Hara said.

The Decorah Wastewater Plant also has received praise for its biosolids removal plan, according to O'Hara. The organic matter is screened from the waste stream and a digester breaks it down producing methane gas and fertilizer. The methane gas is used in place of natural gas to heat the plant, and the fertilizer is applied to farm fields at a rate of 110 pounds of nitrogen per acre.

After the crop is grown, soil samples show the nitrogen has been removed.

"It's a huge recycling circle ... we're definitely green out here,"

O' Hara said.



Front lines

Water and wastewater operators are on the "front lines" of environmental protection in the country, according to Jim Stricker of Ankeny, retired DNR supervisor for the Des Moines field office and a member of the committee that worked on establishing the new DMACC curriculum.

"Most people don't even think about them ... without these professionals, our streams and rivers would be a mess," he said.

"In the years I've worked in the wastewater industry as a regulator, the skills necessary to operate multi- million dollar wastewater treatment plants have become more and more technically challenging and require more expertise. The ability of those folks to continue to learn and seek innovative solutions to protecting our nation's rivers and streams is certainly a credit to them and certainly worth recognition. What Bob is doing in working to provide that recognition is terrific," Stricker said.

"He (Watson) really has been involved in this for years, in terms of working with IWEA to provide better educational opportunities for professionals and provide information to the public ... it really has been an important contribution.

"He has worked tirelessly to get some of these things off the ground ... to get the curriculum set up and water and wastewater professionals recognized," Stricker continued.

Iowa has more incorporated cities than any other state in the country, with the exception of Texas, Stricker said.

More than 750 of those communities have wastewater treatment plants.

"The people working in those plants are almost invisible because they do their jobs so well," Stricker said.

"I'm really pleased that these folks will get the credit they're due," he said.