Wastewater Operator Gave Up College for Collections

David McAlpin goes from university to utility and builds a life around water and wastewater in Blountsville, Alabama.
Wastewater Operator Gave Up College for Collections
David McAlpin, general manager of the Blountsville Utility Board, was the Alabama Rural Water Association’s 2015 Wastewater Operator of the Year. (Photography by Jeff Haller/ Keyhole Photography)

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David McAlpin is proof that the adage “Listen to your elders” pays off. As general manager of the Blountsville (Alabama) Utility Board, McAlpin has found a niche that has served everyone well — himself, his wife and three children, and this quiet community of 1,700 in northwest Alabama.

So well that in March 2015, McAlpin was named Wastewater Operator of the Year by the Alabama Rural Water Association. “I sure was surprised when I won the award,” says McAlpin, 40, a 17-year water and wastewater veteran. “I told people there must have been only one person under consideration for me to have won.

“I’ve been a member of the ARWA for many years. It’s a great organization and an excellent resource for water and wastewater information. I’ve even had ARWA members come up here to do testing on our sewer system, go to our wastewater plant and tell us what we need to do to stay in compliance, and on the water side, conduct leak surveys to help us keep water levels under control.”

Great opportunity

How a Blountsville native and former high school basketball star came to run the town’s water and wastewater systems is an example of seizing an opportunity and driving for the hoop. It also shows how hard work, commitment to learning and passion for providing clean, safe water can produce a rewarding career.

After graduating from J.B. Pennington High School, McAlpin attended Wallace State Community College in nearby Hanceville, Alabama, and earned an associate degree in liberal arts.

Then he enrolled in Athens State University, the state’s oldest institution of higher learning, founded in 1882, on a full basketball scholarship. Finding himself burned out on school after five years, he left the scholarship on the table — “I know it sounds crazy” — and came to the utility. He started the next day as a trainee.

“My uncle told me that I needed a good, steady job that would pay me a living and benefits, so I became a wastewater operator,” says McAlpin, who holds Grade 1 Wastewater and Grade 2 Water certifications. “I’m real glad I listened; it was the best advice I ever got. I learned the business and moved up to superintendent and eventually general manager, while providing for my wife and kids, so it’s been a big win all around.”

Permit issues

On the water side, McAlpin and his two Grade 2 operators are responsible for two well houses that together pump about 500,000 gpd; all they do is add chlorine. The wastewater operation is a three-pond aerated lagoon system built in 1986 and staffed by a Grade 1 operator. Flow averages 300,000 gpd, and effluent discharges to Blue Springs Creek.

McAlpin’s major challenges include keeping up with changing permit requirements set by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. He’s on his fourth discharge permit.

The process provides secondary treatment. McAlpin’s team checks the ponds for sludge buildup quarterly.

Five years ago, McAlpin began to shine when Blountsville encountered some difficult noncompliance issues. When the town received a consent order over its sewer system, officials asked McAlpin to correct the situation and get the town back into compliance. But the fixes weren’t working as fast as the Alabama Department of Environmental Management thought they should. That’s when McAlpin reached out for help from other utilities in the area and hired a consultant knowledgeable about sewer systems, particularly lagoons.

“David worked with them and never let up or ever gave up until we were in compliance,” says Bobby Griffin, vice chairman of the five-member Blountsville Utility Board, which supervises McAlpin and sets his $1 million annual budget. “Those are just some of the things David and his crew did to get us back on track. To date, we’ve been in compliance for 26 straight months of testing with our lagoons. That’s one of the reasons he was nominated and unanimously chosen as Operator of the Year.”

Permit issues also govern chlorine use at the wastewater plant. “We were using chlorine to meet our E. coli parameter, but our permit allows only so much chlorine, so we had to take some of it out before we discharge the water into the receiving stream. We used that method until Dec. 8, 2015, when we put in what to our knowledge was the first and only UV equipment (WEDECO – a Xylem Brand) to be used on the back side of a lagoon system anywhere in the state. It has worked great!”

Attacking I&I

Like many wastewater operations, Blountsville has struggled with inflow and infiltration. Here, McAlpin’s determination and commitment has produced impressive results. In 2014, McAlpin and his team found a severe offset in a sewer line and discovered groundwater pouring into an 8-inch sewer main.

Compounding the problem, many of the lines were installed in the 1940s when I&I wasn’t a priority. McAlpin and his operators used a CCTV camera to inspect the lines and deployed flowmeters in high-flow areas, ultimately finding three major infiltration points. They then patched the lines and fixed leaky manhole covers. In doing so, they reduced infiltration to the treatment plant by 11.5 million gallons per year.

“I&I is just one example of the outstanding job David does for us,” says Griffin, who has served on the board for seven years after retiring from a local water authority. “David is well-versed in all aspects of our water, wastewater and sewer operations. When things don’t go the way they should, he knows just what to do and helps us on the board understand the rules and regulations we need to enforce.”  

Keeping it flowing

McAlpin had his mettle tested in late August 2015 when silt began showing up in Blountsville’s main waterline. It was the first time the town had encountered such a problem, and even retired water operators were puzzled.

“One of the wells pumped 800 gpm, and the other pumped 300 gpm,” says McAlpin. “With that kind of flow, being offline can really set you back, especially for a small town like ours. We really needed to get on top of the problem in a hurry.”

With the water supply threatened, McAlpin and his team swung into action. They quickly tied into the system from nearby Brooksville to keep the water flowing. Next, McAlpin and the utility board brought in well experts who pumped out the silt, which had built up in a well cavity for many years and got high enough in the hole that the suction from the pump began to pick it up. The 800 gpm well, dug in 1964, went down 105 feet and was completely offline. A big crane lifted out the pump, which was installed in 1997, and McAlpin’s crew did extensive maintenance and repair.

“Dealing with the wells was a big job for David and his team,” Griffin says. “They worked long hours making sure that everything went right, tying these other lines in so our customers never missed a beat when it came to their water. Best of all, our customers never knew what happened. We kept providing clean, safe drinking water. When something bad happens, you have to respond right then, because people expect to have water when they turn on their faucets. That’s just what we did.”

Making progress

While there have been no major facility expansions during McAlpin’s tenure, Griffin points out the many modifications made to the water and wastewater system during that time. They include adding a bar screen at the headworks in 2008 and installing a fourth lift station in 2010.

Those are significant projects for a small utility that serves 1,415 water and 815 sewer customers. For the past 10 years, the utility has also had three sewer grants of about $400,000 each to support the collections system.

In addition, McAlpin has purchased a sewer camera and a vacuum truck, which the crew uses for regular maintenance. He and his crew work to find problems and map them in the utility’s GIS, which displays a map of the sewer and waterlines. They put all that information into a maintenance plan where work is prioritized.

“He’s out there with them and coordinates things at the same time,” Griffin says. “It’s not unusual for him to come by for a quick meeting and take five or six phone calls; sometimes it seems as if he’s run ragged keeping everything afloat.”

Despite the heavy workload, McAlpin considers himself lucky to have landed his ideal job. “I had no intention of getting into the water and wastewater business,” he admits. “In fact, I thought it would be a transitional job until I found what I wanted. But then I fell in love with it, and when people retired I was able to move up. If you’re up to the challenge, water and wastewater are great careers. Every day you learn something new.”

More than a day’s work

David McAlpin starts his day with the Blountsville (Alabama) Utility Board at 7 a.m., typically meeting with the operators to discuss what needs to be done. His shift ends at 3:30 p.m., but that’s not the end of his work.

When he’s not at the utility, McAlpin works with his father, who runs a 400-acre farm 3 miles from Blountsville, named for Gov. Willie G. Blount of Tennessee, who helped settlers in Alabama during the Creek War of 1813-14. They raise cattle and maintain four poultry houses.

McAlpin often puts in three or four additional hours a day there because there’s always something to do on a farm that size. He doesn’t mind because it’s the family farm he grew up on. Not long after getting married, he bought some additional land and built a house on it. Fortunately, McAlpin is a high-energy type and he enjoys being tied to the land as much as the water.


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