At the east-end of Toronto on Lake Ontario lies the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant. This vast facility has been providing clean drinking water for more than 70 years. And for 70 years the building has been a fixture on Toronto’s shoreline. The plant, dubbed the jewel by the lake, is a good example of the evolution in water treatment that has taken place across the country. While the building’s exterior and employee’s objectives remains unchanged, on the inside, the business of making clean drinking water has been completely transformed.

In generations past, most water operators gained employment straight out of high school; however, these days, operators are required to have a strong foundation in science, engineering, and technology. EPCOR quality assurance director Steve Craik said, “For large water treatment facilities with their own laboratories (like EPCOR in Edmonton), the greater degree of sophistication means more reliance on individuals with advanced degrees like M.Sc.’s and Ph.D’s.” Craik said that students entering the work force are generally more computer savvy than their predecessors, which is warranted with the greater reliance on computers.

Emerging technologies

Within a 10-year timeframe water management has been transformed with new technologies coming online for monitoring, treatment, and distribution. For example, operators can test for emerging containments and pathogens that couldn’t be identified before. Labs use advanced water treatment technologies such as ultra-filtration membranes and analytical instrumentation that can detect micro-pollutants to parts-per-billion and parts-per-trillion levels.

William Fernandes, the director of water treatment and supply for the City of Toronto said, overall, there has been a shift to automated systems and computerized applications to store information and support operations and maintenance. Even field instrumentation has transitioned to microprocessor from analog control he said. Improved reliability and automation of equipment has improved efficiency, allowing workers to focus on higher-level functions. Time spent on paper charts and manually recording data can now be used to focus on system-wide challenges. For example, Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems help staff to rapidly address equipment issues or changing water quality. As a result, there is a greater need for workers with automation, instrumentation, or controls background to support plant operations, and those related to information technology, said Fernandes.

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“Operators need to understand how systems work from source to final discharge,” said Pat Miller, Sun Peaks Utilities’ director of utilities. “They also need to know how equipment works and the impacts of their actions on a broad scale.” In the age of automation, Miller believes that the skills necessary to code in PLC/SCADA software is critical when troubleshooting issues. “That being said, operators still need to know how to operate heavy equipment, like backhoes, skid steers, and excavators.”

Hands-on training needs

Despite the need for higher education, employers still place a heavy emphasis on hands-on experience. The 2015 BC Water and Wastewater Sector Workforce Survey noted that hands-on learning and certification is key to progress in water and wastewater sector careers. It stated that, “there are limited pathways for new operators to successfully enter the workforce, and additional education options are required to train underemployed individuals with related degrees and diplomas.”

“To fully understand the equipment, an operator needs hands-on experience and training. We provide training both by a peer-to-peer method and by utilizing educational organizations,” said Mike Gosselin, past chair of the EOCP board and a city of Kelowna wastewater manager. Industry professionals praise schools and training programs that offer co-op placement. Training videos are more prevalent now than in the past. Many suppliers are starting to put training videos on sites like YouTube, and some firms actually require suppliers to provide videos or animations for teaching. Even industry associations are training through videos and animations.

People skills

Miller noted that communications skills are also increasingly important for water operators. Managers need to interact with decision-makers and the communities they serve now more than ever before, because there is a greater awareness and desire to understand how water is being treated. “Being aware of people’s perceptions can make or break a system, help or hinder funding for new projects, and are crucial for making customers understand issues like water conservation or about non-flushable wipes,” said Miller.

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Kate Reilly, a PhD candidate and educator in integrated water resources management at McGill University, said this is also true of practitioners who are managing source water at the watershed level. Reilly currently teaches an MSc-level course in watershed systems management that places a significant emphasis on approaches to public engagement for water management. Reilly said, “A common risk of current watershed planning is that once plans are produced, the process is considered finished and the plan’s recommendations are not implemented. Therefore, we [the educators] concentrate on evaluating and prioritizing the problems in a watershed, taking advantage of windows of opportunity, building momentum by successfully implementing small actions, and building stakeholder ownership of the process.” Reilly added that, “We emphasize stakeholder participation in watershed management decisions, including how to design a participation process, how to use its results and how to evaluate its effectiveness. While we do not expect all our students to run a stakeholder participation process in their future jobs, it is vital that they understand the value of stakeholder input to decision-making.”

Diversifying the workforce

Encouraging females to join the water sector is another key priority for leaders and educators in the industry. Historically, the number of women working as water operators have been low. For example, a 2015 survey of by the BC Water and Wastewater Association, found that women accounted for only 12.9 per cent of the water sector workforce in British Columbia, and that numbers are even lower for operator and supervisor positions.

Miller is the first female operator on the Environmental Operators Certification Program (EOCP) board. The EOCP is responsible for certifying water and wastewater operators in B.C. and the Yukon. The organization evolved 50 years ago from a handful of wastewater treatment plant operators. Miller said that the female participation in the sector is increasing. “When I started with EOCP, I found that there were around 100 certified female operators. Now, 12 years later, there are just over 200 female operators,” she said.

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Advice for those looking for a career in water management? Miller, Reilly, and Gosselin all agree that while training programs are delivering what’s needed to teach the fundamentals, maintaining skills and keeping current with technological advancements is an ongoing process. Craik on the other hand stressed that new recruits should be prepared for continued education even after they enter the workforce.

Tristan Simpson is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

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Photo: Lindsay Ariss, Walkerton Clean Water Centre Technician and Instructor, explains a component of an online turbidity meter to a group of Centennial College students in the Technology Demonstration Facility. Credit: Walkerton Clean Water Centre.

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