42 teams squared off in New Orleans to test their skills against one another, from lab work to safety emergency response.


The directive from Tom Thorson to his team Tuesday afternoon was a common one among coaches.

“Finish strong!”

Finish strong in repairing an in-service section of 8-inch gravity PVC sewer pipe that is. Not in more typical athletic endeavors, such as running across a finish line. The pipe repair was part of the Operations Challenge at this week’s WEFTEC in New Orleans. Forty-one teams representing state and regional Water Environment Associations in the U.S. and Canada — and one squad from Argentina — competed over the course of two days in five events that tested the skills they put to use in their day-to-day work.

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On Monday, teams began with the process control event, which featured a written exam about various treatment processes and troubleshooting problems. Teams also diagnosed and solved several scenarios using Simuworks modeling software by Hydromantis, a new component to that particular event. Monday concluded with the laboratory event, where teams ran straight and diluted samples of ammonia and alkalinity and used test values to calculate if the fictional treatment plant in question could achieve complete nitrification.

On Tuesday, the more physical events were held. Teams’ ability to respond to emergency situations was put to the test in various simulations, which covered repairing a section of in-service sewer pipe, handling a lift station pump outage during a severe weather event, and responding to an unconscious co-worker in a manhole. After the judging was complete and the scores tallied, the winning teams were unveiled during an evening awards ceremony. In Division 2, Elevated Ops representing the Rocky Mountain WEA took top honors, followed by the Wasatch All Stars (WEA of Utah) and the TRA Waste Warriors (WEA of Texas). In Division 1, the defending champs — and winners four other times in the last decade — the TRA CReWSers (WEA of Texas) were unseated. The Blue Ridge Brawlers of the Virginia WEA took the title, with Motley Poo (Chesapeake WEA) and L.A. Wrecking Crew (California WEA) placing second and third.

In its 29th year, the Operations Challenge has become one of the top highlights of WEFTEC. People may not have a crowd gathered around them and hear cheers when they’re handling test tubes of water samples at the lab in their home treatment plant, but in the Operations Challenge they do. Some teams prepare for months to be able to expertly perform the skills challenges on the spot once they’re on the convention center floor at WEFTEC. But it’s about more than just the competition.

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“You get to work on skills you use every day but learn how to tweak them for a high-stress situation. It’s a good way to learn from others too. You get to see how people do their jobs differently,” says Thorson, who once competed for the Clean Water Services team of Hillsboro, Oregon, and now serves as coach.

Not long ago that educational experience proved valuable for Thorson and his co-workers. There was a lift station pump outage and a backup pump had to be put into place. They even used the same Godwin model used in the Operations Challenge.

“The very thing we’ve practiced we had to do for real,” Thorson says. “It’s nice because it made us confident that it would work.”

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