Water Utility Internship - Every day was a surprise

After I visited the Lawrence Water and Wastewater facilities on a school field trip my senior year, I applied to be an intern for the summer between my senior year in high school and my freshman year in college. After an application process and an interview, I started at the Kansas River Wastewater Treatment Plant. On my first day I got all sorts of things thrown at me like a Surface Pro, a new work phone, a badge, keys, a garage door opener, and a vacant office in the administrative area. I completed the regular safety training videos (in my own office!) and signed documents for the first week while being introduced to lab techs and going on small tours of the different areas of the plant.

I was never exactly sure what I'd be doing every week, so every day was a surprise. 

The second week I helped with an IPT (Industrial Pre-Treatment) survey. This survey is sent out to industries in Lawrence to survey them about what kind of materials they might be dumping into the wastewater system, and if it's dirty enough, the city charges them extra and take samples of their wastewater. I sorted through a giant index of addresses and looked at satellite data to make an educated guess about what they might be putting into the wastewater system. It was A LOT of work.

When I finished that, I toured the other plants in town; the Wakarusa WWTP, Clinton WTP, and Kaw WTP. I also toured Farmland, an old fertilizer manufacturing depot where ammonia and nitrates seep into the groundwater. It's a controversial topic at MSO. Adam Schnurr stands in front of treatment plant

All of the lab technicians are cross trained to move from wastewater to water treatment, so who you see every month in the lab changes. I shadowed several lab techs doing BOD (biological oxygen demand), TSS (total suspended solids), turbidity, and other fantastic things we learned about in my senior science class. I verified and calibrated every pipette in each lab at each treatment plant (no pressure!), along with scales, 2-3 times a week!

The next big thing for me was getting the responsibility of tower sampling. Lawrence has 6 water towers and 7 sample points total used to verify the instruments that report to the SCADA system (the software that operators use to run the plant). Every Monday I drove a truck to each of the sample points all over town to take readings of the instruments. I also took samples of the water to test pH at the Clinton lab to make sure the probe at the tower was accurate. I then entered the data into our LIMS, called Element, so the instrumentation workers could make sure everything looked right.

Once a month, I would also take a HPC (heterotrophic plate count) sample after disinfecting the sample points. I brought the samples back to the lab and was supervised as I set up HPC and coliform tests. You pour this media in with the sample and swish it around into these wells, and they fluoresce giving you an estimate for the HPC levels in the water tower. This was by far the most interesting part for me because of my interest in microbiology.

Sometimes they ran out of things for me to do, so one week I was tasked with washing out a carbon contact basin at the Clinton plant with a firehose. So I suppose I'm qualified to open a fire hydrant now? I got quite the farmer-tan-sunburn that day.

Then, I shadowed a former KU Chemistry lecture instructor for a week. This unlocked a wealth of educational knowledge I'll definitely be using next year. He's an analytical chemist. We both got curious about how some expensive lab machinery used for taste & odor worked, so we "took it apart", haha! It uses a plastic filament to pick up volatile chemicals, like geosmin, that give our water it's sometimes unpleasant smell. That machine goes through helium constantly, so it's very expensive!

Then it was back to the office for me, working on processing lab reports from some of the companies we already were monitoring for what they put in the wastewater system to determine how much they would be charged. I got lots of experience with Excel that I’m sure I will need later.

Then I was assigned Lead Service Line validation, working with Lawrence's GIS to try and figure out which houses need to be surveyed and inspected because they could potentially have lead pipes. I used logic and satellite data to determine if a house really needed to be inspected, or there was just missing data, in the 35,000 row excel sheet. There was a lot of data to sort through!

I spent my final week at the Kaw plant shadowing water operators as they walked around the plant doing samples every 3 hours and making sure everything was running smoothly. There was a lot of down time to ask questions, so I know how that plant works inside and out! Of course, I took pictures along the way so I could explain it to anyone if I felt inclined.

On my final day I said my goodbyes to all of the people I met, got some contact info from people I maybe wanted to get references from in the future, and asked one final request: may I use the microscope? At both the wastewater plants, they have fancy $30,000 digital microscopes that are never used because they don't sample sewage to look at the bugs anymore. Riley granted my request so I got to spend an hour with a microscope, raw sewage and primary basin samples, and my curious eyes. Eye opening experience!

Every day this summer I thought to myself, man, this is so much better than working at McDonalds! I learned so many things I hope I won't forget and made connections with people I would've never known without this internship. I will never forget this experience, and it will benefit me for the rest of my life!