Taking Control of Utility Operations

Operations manager draws on broad background and past success to overhaul Illinois utility.

Taking Control of Utility Operations

Paul Burris (left) and Assistant Superintendent Tom Tapella meet next to three new raw influent screw pumps from Evoqua.

A city leader looking at a resume from Paul Burris might easily have said: No, too many jobs in too short a time.

Leaders in the Illinois city of Elmhurst saw something else: Solid and diverse experience and a record of accomplishment. They hired Burris in April 2016 as utility operations manager, and they certainly have not been sorry.

Burris has led an aggressive attack on I&I in the city’s collections system, a comprehensive upgrade of the wastewater treatment plant, and the installation of automated metering infrastructure and leak detection on the drinking water side. The city’s confidence in Burris was confirmed when he was named 2018 Professional Manager of the Year in water resources by American Public Works Association.

Burris credits his success to a broad background on the municipal and private sector sides of the water and wastewater industry, to mentors who guided him on the way, and to co-workers in the communities and companies he has served.

“It’s not about me,” Burris says. “Others surrounding me have made me better, helping me see things I’d never seen before, showing me how to look at things differently.”

Starting early

In Elmhurst (population 45,000), a western suburb of Chicago, Burris is responsible for wastewater, drinking water and stormwater. The various job changes he had made didn’t bother Howard Kilian, then public works director (now retired). “I looked at his overall experience and the things he had done,” Kilian says. “We were looking for someone who could come in, take control of the operation and run with it.

“Paul has really turned around both the wastewater operations and the utility division. He has brought a lot of professionalism into the group, really pushing for everybody to get to a certain level of licensing for the positions they’re in.

“He has a go-getter, complete-a-project attitude. I gave him a water meter replacement project 

that we had been looking at for years. He took control and before we knew it, that project was done and operational. He is cutting-edge when it comes to technology.”

It could be said that Burris started his water career at a bowling alley in New Lenox, Illinois, a village of 26,000 half an hour southwest of Chicago. “I was 16 years old, and I was on a bowling team with the mayor’s son,” he recalls. “We talked about summer jobs.”

He landed a summer position with the street department, doing maintenance and mowing grass. That was in 1981. In later high school years, he worked in the water department and for a time at the wastewater treatment plant. After high school, indulging an interest in math and computing, he joined a securities firm. A few years later, preferring to work outdoors, he went back to New Lenox as a laborer in the wastewater plant.

A mentor for life

In 1987, Burris was derailed by a car accident that left him with a severe concussion and shattered right hand, along with back, shoulder and knee injuries. While his body healed, his boss Mike Turley, wastewater treatment plant superintendent, helped rebuild his confidence.

“Mike pretty much changed my life,” Burris recalls. “For a time I thought I wasn’t going to amount to much. As I worked to put myself back together, he was always there. He basically made it a challenge for me. We became real good friends. He was my mentor. He let me learn from my mistakes, which was probably the biggest thing.

“When I was struggling with a certain task or a certain problem, he would never give me the answer. He would make me figure it out. It was always about learning, getting better, learning how to get others better. One thing he taught me was that this is not a job, it’s really a career.

“We used to challenge each other. He went for his bachelor’s degree; I went for mine. I went for my water license; he went for his. He was teaching at Joliet Junior College; I started teaching for the Environmental Resource Training Center at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville. We pushed each other to go to the next step.”

While in New Lenox, Burris and Turley, along with co-worker Brian Williams, formed an operations company that helped small communities and private entities like mobile home parks operate their water and wastewater systems.

Onward, upward

In 2001, Burris was recruited by the Aqua America utility services company, where he was in charge of a surface water treatment plant in Kankakee, Illinois. There he learned that skills from a municipal setting do not necessarily translate directly to the private sector. That was the first in a series of job changes over the next decade and a half. In 2005 he joined American Water as contract operations manager for the West Region.

“That was the first time I got to experience dealing with elected officials, higher-level regulators and decision-makers,” he recalls. “It was exciting to do that. They had one of the best employee training programs I’ve ever seen. If you needed classes, special training, whatever it was, they provided it. I had two supervisors there, Rob Kuta and Troy Day. When I had questions, they were there.”

A year later he moved on to Utilities Inc., overseeing facility operations in Illinois, Indiana, Arizona and Nevada. After four years he was responsible 

for facilities in four other states and traveled about 300 days per year. When his mother fell ill, he returned to Illinois as chief operator of the largest wastewater treatment facility in DuPage County. He’s indebted to Roy Kressman and Joel Simintel, principal operators, for helping him deal with his personal issues while maintaining work performance.

Three and a half years later his mom had recovered, “So it was time for me to spread my wings again,” he says. The next stop was as area manager with United Water in Michigan, in charge of nine facilities.

“My supervisor, Gary Timmer, put together an unbelievable team. We got things done. We started programs to train our employees to better understand the processes and our clients. Gary’s support and leadership shaped my management skills in areas where I was lacking.”

When his stepdad fell ill in 2014, Burris moved back to Illinois again, this time as director for water and wastewater in Crest Hill. There he applied his experience to create his first utility master plan for the water system. Among many accomplishments, he and team member (and eventual successor) Mark Siefert developed a process to flush some 1,000 hydrants in four weeks — a process with which the city crew had previously struggled.

On to Elmhurst

There was a reason for each step in the journey, and the same was true of the move to Elmhurst in 2016. “We purchase our water from DuPage Water Commission,” Burris says. “We use about 4 mgd. We have 15 million gallons of storage and about 183 miles of water mains to maintain. On the wastewater side we have an activated sludge wastewater treatment plant that can treat up to about 20 mgd. Then we have an excess flow facility where we can make modifications in the plant to treat another 40 mgd.” The average flow is 8 mgd.

Key members of the Elmhurst team include Cori Tiberi, assistant public works director; Kent Johnson, city engineer; Dan Rosenwinkel, utility superintendent for water production and treatment; and Chris Dufort, utility superintendent for water distribution and collection.

Elmhurst’s combined wastewater collections system was separated in the 1980s, but some drain tiles, sump pumps and other sources remain connected. “So we still get high flows when it rains,” Burris says. “We’re now on a program of televising, relining and manhole repairs. We’re investing money every year to keep the flows as low as we can.”

Another challenge was unaccounted-for water. The city’s water meters were more than 25 years old, and most needed to be changed out. In 10 months the city replaced 15,000 meters, choosing Neptune Technology Group units for residential customers and Master Meter units for the commercial side. The city also deployed automated metering infrastructure from Aclara.

A customer portal with WaterSmart software enables homeowners to monitor their water use online and receive notification of leaks.

While a team worked on a water meter exchange and AMI plan, they discovered ZoneScan acoustical water-leak detection technology (Gutermann, an Aclara affliliated manufacturer). “The city used to hire a contractor on an annual or biennial basis to listen to all 183 miles of pipe,” Burris says. “If a break happened the next day, we might not find it for one or two years, or until it surfaced.”

ZoneScan was an overseas technology that no utility in the United States had implemented at similar scale or on an AMI. The city installed 609 units on the distribution system. “Now every night at 2 a.m. it listens for water main breaks,” Burris says. “As the sounds get louder, it sends the data back into a program that we look at every morning, and it codes them on their severity from zero to 100.”

The meter exchange and the ZoneScan technology helped the city reduce unaccounted-for water from nearly 20% to approximately 5%. Payback on the system was one year. The project helped the city earn a 2020 Utility Saver Award from the AWWA Illinois Section, a 2019 Innovation of the Year from the DuPage Mayors and Managers Conference, and an Innovation Award from the APWA Chicago chapter.

Being a teacher

Burris describes his management style as hands-off with teaching as needed. “I sometimes get staff upset when I do not directly answer a question. I ask them for their recommendation; that requires them to think about the problem and then offer solutions.

“As a teacher I always say there are no dumb questions. If you don’t know, then likely someone else doesn’t know. So ask anything you are unclear on. Many of my students learn how water systems work, not how to pass a test. Teaching someone to memorize a question and answer is not a way to teach future water and wastewater operators.”

Looking back, Burris recalls a concept he learned from mentor Mike Turley: “He taught me that this is a hobby. Work became a hobby because I liked doing it. Mike instilled that in me, and I’ve tried to instill that in others.” 


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