Los Alamos Water Distribution System Operator Honored For Excellence

Jeff Romero learned lessons in the Marines and from his hard-working father that helped him succeed in the water and wastewater field.
Los Alamos Water Distribution System Operator Honored For Excellence
New Mexico Water Distribution System Operator of the Year award winner Jeff Romero works in Los Alamos.

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Pipefitter Jeff Romero wears many hats at the Los Alamos County (N.M.) Department of Public Utilities. He oversees maintenance and construction projects for water, wastewater and gas systems, troubleshoots customer problems over the phone, and makes sure the people of Los Alamos receive reliable, high-quality utilities service.

Romero has faced challenges on the job, and they include overseeing a 50-person crew that rebuilt water, wastewater and gas infrastructure damaged by the 48,000-acre Cerro Grande wildfire in 2000.

After a 17-year career at the utility, Romero was recognized for outstanding work. He received the 2012 Water Distribution System Operator of the Year award from the New Mexico Water and Wastewater Association.

“My supervisors are taking notice of my self-motivation and ability to complete all the tasks assigned to me,” he says. “Those who work with me in the field [Joseph Montoya, Sammy Maestas, David Gomez] wanted me to win this award.”

Romero’s success comes from pride in a job well done, a strong work ethic learned during eight years in the military, and his mentors. His greatest mentor was his father: “My dad was a meat cutter who hardly ever missed a day of work. I learned from him about what it means to be responsible and do the best job you can every day.”

Highly motivated

A native of Santa Fe, Romero joined the Marines right out of high school. After six years of duty, including a tour in Kuwait for Operation Desert Storm, he left the Marines and enlisted in the National Guard. “In the desert, they treated the water with a reverse osmosis system, and that was my first experience with water treatment,” he recalls. In the National Guard, his fluency in Spanish landed him in Panama.

While out of the United States, Romero noticed the lack of sanitation in many areas. “There were open sewers or one spigot for drinking water,” he says. “I became interested in working in the utility business to maintain and improve the infrastructure. And here I am today, working in not just one area but in water, wastewater and gas.”

After leaving the service, Romero connected with a friend who became his mentor. “Martin Flores taught me about the gas industry,” he says. “I’ve known him since I was 5. He worked for the gas company as a welder and put me to work. I started as a meter reader and moved to senior crew member laying gas lines.”

He later went to work for Larry Maestas, another mentor. “Larry owned a business that contracted work out to other gas companies. I worked for him for a few years, and when he downsized, I went to Los Alamos County DPU.”

He started as an apprentice and observes, “If you want to move up at Los Alamos, you must have credentials. I had only a gas fitter’s license, so they gave me six months to get my water and wastewater certifications.” Today, he holds a class 4 (highest) water operator license and supervises apprentice Escquiel “EZ” Garcia. Says Romero, “Now it’s my turn to mentor someone. EZ started a year ago, and we work as a team. When anyone works for me, it’s like a partnership.”

Treating the water

Los Alamos County operates its own gas company, a trickling filter wastewater treatment plant and an activated sludge plant. Drinking water is drawn from 12 aquifer-fed wells. Four disinfection sites treat the water with a MIOX system (MIOX Corporation). The water production and distribution divisions provide water to about 7,000 customer meters in Los Alamos County, Bandelier National Monument and Los Alamos National Laboratory.

On a typical day, Romero might be found working on water meters, wastewater pipes or gas lines. “There is a lot of variety; it’s not a boring job,” he says. Based in the utility’s shop area, Romero reviews his work orders in the morning and spends the day in the field. “I come in early, get on the computer, and pull work orders and pull all the parts and equipment and personnel we need for that day’s job,” he says.

Romero is periodically on call for seven days at a time and is one of six distribution system employees with primary (lead person) status. There are 12 secondary status employees. “Every six weeks from 7:30 a.m. on Friday to the following Friday, I am on call,” Romero says. “The overtime in this job is good, but it does wear on the body.”

Long days

The days can be strenuous. After the 2000 wildfire destroyed more than 400 homes and much of the city’s infrastructure, Romero was assigned to oversee a 50-person water line construction crew. “This involved new mains and services, disinfection, hydrostatic testing, hydrant installations, line rerouting,” he says. “It was a huge undertaking.”

With more than one crew at any time performing the same work in different locations, the lead crew person on each job looked to Romero for guidance. “They were constantly asking questions about one thing or another and coordinating change orders in the field,” Romero says. “There was no downtime, and it was a strenuous task to say the least.”

He recalls that when the fire ravaged the city, the utility crews responded on a Wednesday and worked 18 hours a day for three straight days. “My family told me it was Saturday when I got home, since I had lost track of what day it was,” he says. “In the military service, they don’t care if you sleep or not as long as you are still alive, so I got used to it.”

Face of the utility

Romero especially likes working with the public: “I deal directly with contractors, businesses and residential customers. I appreciate that people are diverse and from different walks of life.

“I remember once I went into a Japanese person’s home, and I noticed that they take off their shoes. OSHA doesn’t allow us to do that when we’re working, so I asked her to get me plastic bags and I put them over my shoes. You have to be safe, but if you make the effort to respect their customs, they appreciate that.”

Dealing with the public can be challenging. For example, Romero visits restaurants to check their grease traps. “If a lot of grease gets into the sewer, it can cause a problem at the wastewater plants, so we do spot inspections at 36 restaurants and 100 commercial businesses,” Romero says. “We can show up on a given day without notice and inspect the traps. Some of the businesses try to get out of the expense of fixing the problem, but once the state board of health gets involved, they usually comply.”

Looking to the future

Romero’s greatest challenge is learning the Los Alamos County construction rules and regulations: “Everything we do in the field needs to be done a certain way, and contractors have to go by the book too. I need to know all the rules and regulations so I know if the contractors whose work I oversee are following the book.”

His greatest accomplishment: “Getting this far and learning three different trades – water, wastewater and gas.

“I’ve been here 17 years and would like to move into one of the supervisory jobs that may be available in the near future,” he says.

Until then, he will keep doing the best job he can for the customers he serves: “I love coming to work, and if a project needs to get done, I will do everything to make sure it goes smoothly and safely.”

More Information

MIOX Corporation - 800/646-9426 - www.miox.com


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