WEF Fellow Rebecca West has dedicated her career in water to healthy people and communities.
Rebecca West has managed everything from collections systems to community involvement programs, and she knows the water iindustry.
“My career has been like moving from one stepping stone to another, then jumping on a bulldozer, then back on the stepping stones,” says West, now the chief operating officer of Spartanburg Water System and a new Water Environment Federation (WEF) fellow. The fellow designation recognizes career achievements, stature and contributions to the water profession. West also served as WEF president from 2008-’09.
West’s utility serves what’s called “the upstate” of South Carolina. It’s actually two entities — water and wastewater — that operate under one name. Spartanburg Water System is a political subdivision of the city of Spartanburg, while Spartanburg Sanitary Sewer District is a South Carolina special purpose district.
West oversees engineering, technical services, the capital improvement plan, contracts, regulatory permits, operations and maintenance, human resources, the utility’s involvement in economic development for the area, and other community involvement efforts. Along the way, she has worked in a lab and managed a biosolids department, collections and distribution systems, three drinking-water facilities and more than 10 clean-water plants, as well as safety and security programs.
Lately she has worked with the Spartanburg Economics Futures Group to help Spartanburg land a large company, Toray Industries, that would supply carbon fiber parts to Boeing. Landing the company would mean an economic shot in the arm for the community. Her role is to help the company’s manufacturing processes work with Spartanburg Water’s needs. It’s pretreatment done right, ensuring that the processes are water-friendly from the start.
The move to water
West has moved steadily up the ladder since she began her career in water. She started in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in biology from Wofford College in South Carolina. She enrolled at Wofford intending to go into medicine (the biology degree was to be her premed education). But Wofford required courses beyond biology, and West took and enjoyed some environmental courses.
She worked at a hospital for a year, but something about improving the environment kept tugging at her. A lab job opened up at Western Carolina Regional Sewer Authority in Greenville, South Carolina (now Renewable Water Resources), and West said to herself, “I have a biology degree. I can work in a lab.”
She got the job and credits her boss there, Andrea Fagin, with being a great mentor.
The authority was upgrading its wastewater treatment plant and phosphorus removal process, and that introduced West to operations: “I fell in love with it.”
When Western Carolina ventured into biosolids land application, West was chosen to manage the new department. Fagin supported West and sent her to training. West developed the lab methods and worked closely with operations. “That’s what got me into operations,” she says.
‘Bad News Bears’
Solids management then consisted mostly of moving material from Point A to Point B and to landfill. The people in her department were known as “the Bad News Bears” of the organization. “I was a very young manager, and green,” West says. “I knew enough about operations to be dangerous, and they put me in charge of heavy-equipment operators and truck drivers. It was a world I didn’t know anything about.”
She worked through what her team was doing to produce biosolids so she could tell her operators and her customers. “We were going to start this department and we were going to produce biosolids,” she says. “We were going to make a viable product.”
So West began training. Her operators soon became certified Class D biological wastewater operators and biosolids operators. West then developed the biosolids operator certification program. She spearheaded the Biosolids Operator Training School and the Biosolids Operator Certification Program for South Carolina.
“What I learned in managing biosolids was that it was important for marketing and acceptance that you have a product people can trust,” West says. “Our team learned to communicate with the farmers and encourage and teach them that this was a safe product and what they could do to help us. By the time I left that department, it was the department to be in.”
West’s experience at Western Carolina taught her a lot. “The neat part was learning how we have to get the public to embrace what we do from start to finish,” she says. “It’s just like a business. We have a product. We have to understand all the inputs and our manufacturing processes, and how they combine to make our final product.
“We have to know the process is right so we can market and sell our product. Having the operators understand what we were doing — that we were not just dumping stuff in a landfill so we could check off a box and be done for the day — made it a great program for the industry.”
From biosolids, West became manager of operations. “I got to where I could start to see the bigger picture,” she says. “That was my big ‘aha’ moment.” She came to understand that she wasn’t just building facilities; she needed to build facilities that matched the skill sets of the people working there.
“You can’t just give a toddler a car and say ‘Have at it,’” she says. “You have to build a facility that matches the capabilities of your staff, or you have to get staff that has broader capabilities.”
The next level
From Western Carolina, West moved on to become director of technical services with Spartanburg Water 2002-’09 and deputy general manager of engineering and technical services with that entity 2009-’13 before taking her present position, where her duties still include overseeing facility development.
She says considerations with infrastructure design are often tied to similar considerations of the staff. “Is their existing skill set the right one to operate this facility? What are their capabilities? What’s their assimilative capacity? How far can I go? Then we have to ask ourselves, ‘What are they able to do?’ And we determine what is needed to bring them to the next level.”
Some people, she observes, have already found their level. Then it’s necessary to find other people to complement them, “so we can run the facilities the way they were designed to be run.” All of this thinking brings the question: Why do I need this technology?
“Will it help us operate the facility and meet our service level commitments, our customers’ needs and our regulatory requirements?” she asks. “What will it take to train operators to operate it as designed and intended? Will it create more work? Will it make us less efficient? Sometimes it’s OK to just roll the window down manually instead of using a button.”
Thinking about all this was her grand awakening as an operations manager. As she moved further into operations, she developed asset management skills that “have really shaped how I think about maintenance and how you make decisions about replacing parts in your system.”
She credits asset management with helping her truly know the system’s condition and capabilities of the system: “Once I realized that’s what asset management helps you do, I understood better how to decide, for example, whether to drive a piece of equipment to failure or just to partial failure. I also learned how such decisions connect to customer service and to regulatory compliance.”
Along the way, West has given abundantly to the industry. Among her many contributions, she served six years on the South Carolina Environmental Certification Board, including two years as vice chair. She chaired the AWWA Reuse Committee in 2014-’15 and for the past three years has chaired the South Carolina AWWA Water Utility Council. She also serves on the board of the South Carolina Water Quality Association and for four years served on the board of the Water Environment Research Foundation.
In 2015, she received the prestigious W.T. Linton Award for service and leadership from the Water Environment Association of South Carolina.
West’s life is not all work. She is active in her church and that has led her on two water-related mission trips overseas. One was to Harghita, Romania, where she oversaw the installation of an onsite wastewater treatment system that helped expand a church camp.
On another mission trip, she oversaw the development and installation of a water well in Kidete, Tanzania. The well serves a village of about 700 people who needed a reliable source of water. The well also provides water for a small farm that supports the children in a nearby children’s home.
Previously, the village had relied mostly on ditches for water supply. Her group worked with the local authorities and got the well drilled. It worked so well a neighboring village did the same thing.
She must have done well on these projects, because her pastor is lining up another one for her.
“I blame my mother for all this,” West says with a chuckle. “I grew up in Charleston on the coast. As a child, I was always wanting to go to the beach, but my mother always said, ‘No, it’s polluted and contaminated.’”
West remembers telling her mother: “One day I’m going to fix this.” Although she didn’t go into medicine, she’s been working in public health ever since.
Expect the unexpected
Aggressive preparation for natural disasters helped Spartanburg Water “dodge a bullet” after the intense storms that inundated parts of South Carolina in October 2015.
Unprecedented rains fell in numerous areas of the state. Two Columbia locations got more than 15 inches in 24 hours on Oct. 3-4, and 16 inches fell in another area. A personal weather station in Columbia got 18.7 inches.
Rebecca West, chief operating officer, says the Spartanburg area got about 6 inches of rain over two days, but the utility was prepared through its long involvement in climate change discussions and planning for intense weather.
For example, the utility is working to have minimal water and sewer lines crossing creeks, “unless they’re on a bridge or under a creek,” West says. “We’ve intentionally designed the distribution system with alternate routing scenarios and redundancies built in.” Service outages of more than 12 hours have been rare.
“We’ve also built temporary systems for the short term when we lost a feed waterline,” West says. “It takes planning, but that’s a decision made in the beginning that has allowed us to be where we are today.”