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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

A Veteran’s Guide to Becoming a Water or Wastewater Operator

A Veteran’s Guide to Becoming a Water or Wastewater Operator

The career path of a water or wastewater operator is a great fit for veterans that want to continue serving the public with the skills developed during their time on active-duty. The profession requires mechanical, hands-on problem solving abilities and in turn offers job security, good pay, benefits, and professional development opportunities.

Utilities can mutually benefit by recruiting veterans. Talent gaps created by retiring operators can be filled by veterans returning home from active duty. Their military training ensures that they have the dedication, flexibility, accountability, and communication skills necessary to juggle small system needs. Furthermore, veterans are familiar with working nontraditional hours that are sometimes required to maintain smaller water systems.

Given the compatibility between veterans and the water industry, this blog will provide resources and guidelines veterans can use to become a water or wastewater operator.

Obtaining certification will be easiest if military personnel can start developing the necessary qualifications before leaving the military. Operators need to have a broad knowledge of chemistry, microbiology, math, equipment operations, and mechanics. Try to work in water operations or other positions that develops transferable skills during active duty. Request that these experiences be documented by your superiors. Saved military evaluations can also be useful to demonstrate qualifications.

Once you’ve left the military, research the certification requirements under your state. Each state’s certification requirements can vary, however many programs will convert military training into college credits or certification requirements. In the state of Virginia, “substantially equivalent” military training, education, or experience can be credited toward licensure requirements. Virginia also waives the costs for the certification exam. If you haven’t met all the requirements necessary to sit for the certification exam, use our national training calendar to find relevant certification courses and local training providers.

Veterans that are just beginning to fulfill certification requirements should consider joining a certificate program within their state. Certificate programs consist of a series of classes that take anywhere from 6 months to 2 years for completion. At the end of the program students will be prepared and qualified to take the state certification exam. The best programs facilitate hands-on training at a local utility, however these experiences can also be gained in an apprenticeship. To find an apprentice program, reach out to local water utilities, assistance providers, and the National Rural Water Association’s nation-wide apprentice program. Working at a water utility early on will ease the job hunting process after passing the exam.

For additional assistance, contact the AWWA’s veteran program. Scholarships, internships, and career advice in the water workforce can be found at Work for Water. Residents of New England states, can look into the Water Warriors Initiative to find assistance in certification, training, and internships. If you need help finding additional resources for your state’s certification program, contact WaterOperator.org and we’ll point you in the right direction.

Focus on Apprenticeship Programs

Focus on Apprenticeship Programs
It is no secret that drinking water and wastewater utilities are facing a shortage of workers due to job growth and the retirement of the baby boomer generation. Nationwide, over 30-50% of the water workforce is expected to leave the industry in the next decade due to just retirements alone. However, some states, and especially those with a large percentage of smaller, rural systems such as Idaho, face even more serious shortages.

To make matters worse, it isn't always easy for new folks to get a foot in the door. High school graduates may not be aware of the water industry jobs available in their own communities, and even if they become aware, it can take a significant investment of on-the-job experience and education to obtain the proper knowledge and licensure to become an operater.

This is why many state & local governments, community colleges, utilities and water organizations have been collaborating to develop apprenticeship training programs across the country. For example, Indiana Alliance of Rural Water runs an apprentice program as part of a larger NRWA water sector apprenticeship initiative. Their apprentices train alongside experienced technicians while earning a entry-level wage, all in the interest of creating a more robust workforce for the state.


Another water organization, the Water Environment Association, has recently been collaborating with the City of Baltimore to train young people for the water industry. The Baltimore City Water Industry Career Mentoring Program, now in its third year, is an eight-month program for 18-24 year olds that provides water industry career exploration, worksite tours and job shadowing, connections with a career coach/mentor, a summer job at Department of Public Works, and opportunities to interview for full-time, entry-level positions.

Other recent initiatives attempt to recruit workers even before they graduate from high school. A youth apprenticeship program sponsored in part by New Water in Green Bay, WI, offers students the opportunity to gain valuable work experience and insights into the wastewater industry while still attending high school. NEW Water collaborates with the Greater Green Bay Chamber, Northwest Technical College and area school districts for this program.

More and more municipalities are also responding to the need to plan for their futures via apprenticeship programs. The city of Prestonsburg, KY, for example, has recently announced the creation of a 3-year apprenticeship program. Their program partners with a local community college to reduce the time it takes to become a certified water or wastewater treatment operator, giving the city a competitive edge in the race to replace their retiring operators.

Finally, the rise in the need for, and popularity of, apprenticeship programs underscores the importance of continuous monitoring to ensure that apprenticeship outcomes are measuring up to expectations. According to the LA Times, an audit of the apprentice program for Los Angeles' Department of Water and Power revealed that only 51% of those enrolled actually graduated, and those with the highest level of training were being recruited elsewhere.

Interested in learning about apprenticeship programs in your state? The American Water Works Association and the Water Environment Federation each have large and active job banks that are updated daily. You can type "apprentice" as a key word to find some of the opportunities out there.

EPA Releases Preventive Maintenance Tools for Small Systems

EPA Releases Preventive Maintenance Tools for Small Systems
USEPA has released two new/updated interactive tools to help small systems retain and organize important operator knowledge as well as keep track of regular operation and maintenance tasks. In this way, when an operator takes a vacation, retires, or leaves a system, important knowledge about the system is preserved for those taking his or her place. 

The first tool to be released is an updated version of EPA's popular Preventive Maintenance Card File tool. This 857-page easy-to-access electronic version can be tailored to a system's needs. It includes fillable pdf logs for each month as well as logs for common daily, weekly and monthly tasks. In addition, it can provide detailed information about maintenance and operation, source water, emergencies, security, treatment processes, monitoring/sampling, storage, distribution, rules/regulations, operator certification, customer complaints, technology, supplies, important people and more.

The tool can be downloaded in its entirety as a zip file, or you can download individual months/files. If your system prefers a printed format, the logs can be printed out or you can opt to print out the original 2004 Preventive Maintenance Card File for Small Public Water Systems here.

The second new tool, piloted last summer, is the Knowledge Retention Tool Spreadsheet for Small Water Systems, found here. This tool also captures site-specific information to help systems maintain water quality in times of transition, but in a spreadsheet format. Tabs providing information on source water, technology, certification, neighboring utilities, suppliers, distribution info and more provide critical information in a quick and easy to read format, all in one place. The spreadsheet also includes a daily production well log, conversion tables and flushing/backflow/valve-exercising schedules.


In a recent webinar featuring these resources, Melinda Norris from Idaho Rural Water talked about how she has seen utility records written on walls and left on dusty barn shelves, creating situations where years of knowledge are at risk of being lost. For her, theses new tools will increase access and encourage operators to record and preserve critical information for newly hired operators or just for those needing help on a daily basis. 

These tools were developed by the EPA's Workforce Group to address an identified critical area of need for small systems: preventing the loss of years of accumulated system knowledge when an operator retires or leaves a system.

Water Operator Salaries Depend Largely on Geographic Location

Water Operator Salaries Depend Largely on Geographic Location
Water operator salaries and wages depend largely on where operators live and work, according to statistics released by the US Department of Labor last year. And even when operators live in the same state or region, salaries can vary depending on if the operator works in or close to a major metropolitan area. Certainly according to these statistics, small town water operator salaries are not competing with those offered by larger metropolitan areas. While top salaries can approach the $70K - $90K range at some metropolitan utilities on the West Coast, top salaries in rural or non-metropolitan areas in the same areas are $10K- $20K less. And then there are larger regional differences as well. Top-paying states such as California, Connecticut, Nevada, Washington and Alaska all offer annual mean salaries over $50K while in many southern states (such as Texas, Arkansas, Kentucky) the average salary range is $25K - $40K. If you are interested in finding out where your state ranks, you can click here

Other interesting geographic statistics and trends can be found on this Data USA website and includes the area of the country with the highest concentration of water/wastewater operators (Arkansas!) as well as areas with the highest paying operator jobs. If you are interested in finding out detailed salary information for your specific state, including current and projected employment numbers, concentration data, area profiles and more, check out this informative site

Contracting a Certified Water Operator

Many small systems across the nation depend on the services of a circuit rider, also known as a contract operator. In fact, according to this article by Lori Moore, Compliance Specialist at Colorado Department of Public Health, contract operators make up an incredible 33 percent of the total number of certified water professionals who supervise public systems!

Contract operators can help ensure regulatory compliance for less complex systems that do not need a full-time operator, they can respond to emergencies, attend sanitary surveys or help fill-in when a full-time operator cannot be found in the area. 

Whatever the reason, it is important to know how to select a contract operator, and then once selected, how to communicate effectively with them. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has recently published such a guide, outlining the responsibilities of both the responsible official/owner and the certified water operator. The guide also includes a contract operator interview tool and topics for developing terms of a contract.

Pennsylvania isn't the only state offering guidelines for developing a contract. For example, here is Vermont’s Department of Environmental Conservation list of suggested information and requirements to include and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has it's own guide as well. Many states also offer lists of current certified contract operators, like this one

Once selected, communication with the operator is key to developing a successful relationship. Because the work contract operators do is immensely valuable, especially these days, establishing clear expectations can go a long way for everyone involved.