One-Man Show

Dustan Russum has built an award-winning career managing water and multiple public works jobs in tiny Frederica, Delaware.
One-Man Show
Dustan Russum checks a meter register (Master Meter) attached to a fire hydrant meter outside the Frederica Volunteer Fire Company.

What do you do when you need your town’s water well up and running? How do you get an old municipal building floor torn up? Who can spell the mayor when he wants to take a break? In Frederica, Delaware, it’s a no-brainer: Ask Dustan Russum.

Nominally, Russum serves as Public Works water operator for this town of 812 near the Murderkill River in eastern Delaware. In reality, he’s much more. Since he joined the Frederica Water Department in 2014, Russum has brought creative, money-saving ideas, strong technical skills and a “gimme-what-you-got” commitment to the position.
Saluted for skills

Russum, a native of nearby Harrington, a city of 3,700 that hosts the Delaware State Fair, has accomplished a great deal in a relatively short time. His accomplishments include helping Frederica earn a Best-Tasting Water Award from the Delaware Rural Water Association and being named that association’s 2014 Water Professional of the Year.

Russum was honored for bringing the water system into EPA compliance, installing the town’s fluoride system and for fixing a well that has substantially improved fire protection and water service for the east side of the community. Moreover, he saved Frederica millions of dollars by using old parts and borrowing others to make equipment repairs.

“I was surprised and happy when I won,” says Russum. “2014 was a good year for me. I had been here only a few months and we won the best-tasting water competition. Then a short time later I got the Water Professional of the Year award. There were eight or nine operators nominated, so I was very pleased to be recognized.”

Loving the work

Russum’s interest in providing safe, clean drinking water began soon after he graduated in 1998 from Lake Forest High School in Felton, Delaware. In 2000, he joined the city of Milford Sanitation and Street Department. A short while later he learned that the town of Milton was hiring for a water department position as an equipment operator. After he got the job, the town sent him to an 18-week water operator course at Delaware Technical Community College to get his Grade 1 water operator certification.

He lived in Milford for about five years before moving to Milton, about 38 miles south of Dover, the state capital. He spent eight years in Milton, becoming water supervisor in 2005 and director of Public Works in 2010. Living 10 minutes away, he knew Frederica well. In fact, he did a water meter upgrade for the town in 2013, got to know the water operator, and even volunteered to help out if he got sick. That operator started his own business and left, creating an opening that Russum filled in March 2014.

“I really love this job,” says Russum. “Frederica is a great place to work. Everybody here is family-oriented, so if I have a family problem, they tell me to take care of that first. The people here always stand behind you, and they want you to succeed.”

Fixing a phantom leak

Russum proved his value almost from the day he started in Frederica, Delaware. Case in point: a supposed leak in the town’s 100,000-gallon water tank that he pursued with a vengeance.

When Russum came aboard, town officials told him there was a hole in the water tank and it couldn’t be filled to capacity. Chick Glanden, the mayor, believed there was a leak because water had been seen pouring out the tank. At one point, the town considered installing a new bladder at great cost. Coincidentally, the town council was exploring a project with another engineer (who has since left) to build a 300,000-gallon water tower for $1.8 million.

“One day I was working with Dustan in the well house and he said, ‘Pete, our existing water tower isn’t that bad,’” recalls council member Pete Rager. “This engineer wanted to put in a big water tower that would do us for the rest of our days, and Dustan said, ‘I don’t think this one needs to come down yet. Let’s ask some questions.’”

That’s just what Russum did, talking with experts and researching the issue online to find out if there was a leak and what could be causing it. He called in a contractor who did an inspection and confirmed that there was no leak. It turned out that the tower had a bad vent, which Russum ordered replaced.

“I was able to get the town more storage and more psi in the system due to my tweaking of the tank,” says Russum. “We didn’t need to tear the water tank down, so we ended up saving money.”

That’s somewhat of an understatement, according to Rager, who estimates that the town saved about $1 million by not having to replace or extensively repair the tower. That tower will complement a new one being built at the other end of town, supporting Frederica’s annexation of an 8-acre piece of property that includes a service station, convenience store and pharmacy.

Pump redundancy

The tower isn’t the only place Russum has saved the town money. Early on, he discovered a 550 gpm well house that had been sitting idle for nearly 10 years and asked, “Why don’t we use it?” Fiscally cautious town officials wanted to know what it would cost to get it back online. Russum responded by researching the issue, fixing parts and updating controls. Result: For less than $10,000, he got the abandoned well house up and running and supporting the town’s 750 gpm well.

Today, Russum operates the two wells that average 70,000 gpd between them and service 380 to 400 homes, drawing water from the Frederica Aquifer and treating it with fluoride and chlorine. The pumps are electronically linked. One well comes on, and the next time water is needed, the other well kicks in. If there is a serious drop in water pressure and one well can’t keep levels up, the second one takes up the slack.

Town officials appreciate Russum’s contributions and ability to get the job done on a $100,000 annual budget. Mayor Chick Glanden, for one, considers Russum a real asset, citing his creativity, commitment to saving money and willingness to pitch in.

“Dustan goes above and beyond the call; he does a little bit of everything for us and has saved us a ton,” says Glanden. “He went over to an old building here and busted up the floor so we could pour a new one. Any leaks that come up in town, he’ll fix himself, and if he can’t he’ll get a contractor. He’s a one-person Public Works Department who does it all — from changing lightbulbs in Town Hall to sitting at the desk if I want to take a quick break.”  

Another booster is Pete Rager, a town council member who is getting involved in repairing equipment, doing water cutoffs (for nonpayment of bills) and handling other projects. “Dustan is a hard worker who treats the town’s money like it’s his own,” says Rager.

“Instead of going to a catalog and buying the newest and greatest equipment, he’ll say, ‘Maybe we can make this work.’ Everyone on the council agrees that Dustan is working out well for us. He’s been in the water business so long that he has a lot of resources we can use. Not only can he do it all, but he’s also been good at teaching me how things work, so I can step in and help when the need arises.”

For Russum, it’s all part of the job. He typically works 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., starting by inspecting the wells and checking the readings to make sure the water meets regulatory requirements. He’s on call 24/7 every day. If that isn’t enough, in his free time he works with his wife, Shelly, and other family members on his family’s 50-acre farm, growing hay and vegetables sold at co-ops and farmers markets.

“Water is definitely a good career with a lot of opportunities,” Russum says. “When I go to classes and seminars and I look around the room, many of the operators in this area are in the 55- to 60-year-old range. They’ll be retiring pretty soon, and someone has to fill their shoes. Also, every day is an adventure. There’s always something new going on. No two days are alike. What works today might not work tomorrow, so you always have to find a solution.”


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