Huntsville wastewater treatment plant honored for operational excellence

single-meta-cal May 12, 2022

Unless we’re drinking, bathing or swimming, water quality isn’t always top of mind. Most of us arguably take clean, safe water for granted.

We also rarely think about the stringent processes and regulations in place that allow wastewater to be returned to local rivers and streams. Once we flush a toilet or urinal, it’s no longer our problem.

No one knows this more than Mark Rittman, supervisor at the Aldridge Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP), one of six operated by the City of Huntsville.

“We’re here 24/7,” he said of the plant’s operations. “We’re usually not thought of until a sewer line breaks or sewage starts coming up in someone’s house.”

Rittman, however, said he and his fellow operators are committed to providing excellent service behind the scenes. Thanks to their efforts, the plant recently received an award of recognition from Alabama’s Water Environment Association (AWEA), a not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving, protecting and managing Alabama’s waters.

The recognition was presented at the AWEA’s Joint Annual Conference, held April 10-13 in Mobile.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and this is the first excellence award I’ve ever been part of,” Rittman said, adding wastewater treatment plants must apply. “You’re judged by operators from other parts of the state. It means a lot to me because this is our first time to put in for it.”

A unique operation

The City of Huntsville Water Pollution Control Department has the capacity to treat nearly 100 million gallons per day (MGD) across its six treatment facilities. The Aldridge Creek WWTP accounts for 8.4 MGD of that treatment.

Aldridge Creek is unique, though, because of its treatment methods. It’s a trickling filter plant, which employs an old-school technology that was more common a half-century ago.

It’s a great career, without a doubt. Like I tell the school tours, I love what I’m doing, or I wouldn’t have done it for this long. I’ve worked on the water side and the wastewater side, but I really enjoy wastewater because it keeps the environment safe.” – Mark Rittman

Wastewater is first filtered through a primary clarifier to separate solids from wastewater that will be treated. From there, it is sprayed over a bed of small rocks. Beneficial bacteria growing in the rock eats the organic matter in the wastewater.

“It speeds up the process that naturally occurs in a stream,” Rittman said. “This was an old way of treating wastewater that had to change with new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations in 1982. We’re only running about 1.5 million gallons trough the trickling filter system.”

To ensure EPA requirements are met, the trickling filter system is supplemented by modern techniques to ensure only purified, reclaimed water is released into local waterways. However, the uniqueness of the plant’s filtration system is one Rittman loves to discuss, especially with students during school tours.

A worthwhile career

Rittman said wastewater operators provide crucial services, even though they’re not in the public eye. He said the job is also unique because operators regularly rely on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, even without a degree from a four-year university,

Huntsville had more people pass the Grade 4 certification last year than any other water system in Alabama. Rittman credited Water Pollution Control Director Shane Cook for recognizing the importance of recruiting and retaining qualified operators.

“The state recognized all the operators who passed the Grade 4 test because we had so many,” Rittman said. “We’ve had people call from other places who want to know what we’re doing to help prepare them. A lot of it is on-the-job training because you can only learn so much through a book.”

For young people seeking a stable and rewarding career, Rittman said wastewater operator is worth a look. He has a 20-year-old operator who went through the apprentice program, got his certification and is now making $27 an hour.

“It’s a great career, without a doubt,” Rittman said. “Like I tell the school tours, I love what I’m doing, or I wouldn’t have done it for this long. I’ve worked on the water side and the wastewater side, but I really enjoy wastewater because it keeps the environment safe.”

Click here to learn more about the City of Huntsville’s Water Pollution Control program and the treatment of wastewater.