Wastewater Collection and Treatment Operator

Wastewater collection and treatment operators work on systems that collect and treat municipal wastewater. Depending on the size of the system and the municipality, this can be two different jobs: in smaller systems, one person often does both treatment and collection, but in larger centres, a different operator handles each function. Wastewater collection operators work on storage and storm sewer systems, specifically piping, pumping, and lift stations, whereas wastewater treatment operators work in treatment plants, treating and disposing municipal wastewater. These operators also take samples for lab analysis, work with chemicals and equipment used to disinfect wastewater, and maintain equipment, making minor repairs to piping, pumps, and valves.

Worker looking down on a waterfall

At a glance

Imagine you are crossing a metal catwalk two metres above four enormous settling basins on your way to check a flowmeter. You are a wastewater collection and treatment operator doing a routine check on the rate at which these settling basins are emptying: if they’re emptying too fast, solid waste won’t have enough time to settle out, too slow and the basins will overflow from the constant inflow of sewage and storm water.

Even though the treatment plant has a computerized system that constantly monitors the flow rate from the basins, standard operating procedure at the plant requires operators to manually check flows periodically. Today you are confirming that the readings the plant’s computer system has taken from the settling basins are correct.

As a wastewater collection and treatment operator, you have specialized training in the processes and equipment used to collect and treat wastewater at the municipal plant. These settling basins are the primary treatment: storm water and sewage flow through coarse screens to remove large objects and then into the basins, where heavier waste settles out.

After checking the flowmeters at the basins, you check the plant’s biological treatment system. This plant uses rotating biological contactors that have a series of baffles that move through the sludge. On each baffle are grown micro-organisms that digest and remove organic pollutants from the wastewater. You ensure the contactor’s baffles and shafts are functioning properly.

After biological treatment, you check the plant’s ultraviolet disinfection system. This system doses the treated wastewater with ultraviolet radiation that denatures remaining bacteria or micro-organisms that could pose a health risk. Here you check that all UV bulbs are working properly and clean any dirty lamps.

At each stage, you have also gathered samples of the effluent, which you will take to the lab for analysis. The treated effluent is then discharged into the lake, which is the same lake the city draws its drinking water from. Everyone in the city who turns on their taps is counting on you and your team of operators to ensure that the water leaving the wastewater treatment plant has been adequately treated and is clean and safe.

Job duties

Duties vary significantly from job to job, but the following list includes typical job duties one might encounter as a wastewater collection and treatment operator:

  • Draw samples for laboratory chemical and bacteriological analysis.
  • Take and record readings from instruments such as flowmeters and pressure gauges.
  • Analyze instrument readings and make necessary adjustments to equipment.
  • Adjust pumping systems, blowers, sludge handling equipment, and chemical metering equipment in order to maintain steady operation.
  • Complete treatability tests to determine appropriate chemical dosing rates.
  • Evaluate, maintain, and repair equipment, tanks, and storage containers.
  • Prepare reports and maintain operating logs.
  • Investigate chemical and hazardous waste spills that may have entered wastewater collection systems or other storm drainage systems.
  • Respond to complaints from the public and inquiries from superiors and regulators.

Work environment

Wastewater collection and treatment operators work in a variety of locations, including:

In the field:

  • Inspecting operations and making necessary adjustments to equipment
  • Performing routine maintenance and minor repairs
  • Collecting samples for analysis

In the office:

  • Doing paperwork and entering and analyzing data for reporting
  • Communicating on the phone and in meetings with supervisors, colleagues, government officials, and the public

In the lab:

  • Processing samples
  • Performing chemical analyses according to standard laboratory procedures

Where to work

There are a number of places wastewater collection and treatment operators can find employment. They include:

  • Municipal governments
  • Public inspection agencies
  • Private utility companies
  • Firms in other industries that generate wastewater, for example pulp and paper, oil and gas, and mining
  • Environmental and engineering consulting firms

Education & requirements

If you are a high school student considering a career as a wastewater collection and treatment operator, you should have strong marks or an interest in:

  • Chemistry
  • Mathematics
  • Biology
  • Computer Science
  • English

In most cases, the minimum education requirement to work as a wastewater collection and treatment operator is a high school diploma.

If you are a post-secondary student considering a career as a wastewater collection and treatment operator, the following programs are most applicable:

  • Water and Wastewater Technology
  • Environmental Technology
  • Engineering Technology
  • Water Resources

Many wastewater collection and treatment operators have additional training in repairing mechanical and electrical equipment.

Most provinces require certification for wastewater collection and treatment operators. Operator certification has three requirements: education, experience, and a written exam.

Role Model

Sarah Cooke

"Some people are born with a love of accounting…I’ve always had a love of the outdoors…working with nature.” Sarah Cooke says she is fortunate to have been able to parlay her interest in nature into a viable career. For the last two years, the water and wastewater treatment plant operator has been working for the Town of Smiths Falls, Ontario.

From testing the water’s turbidity to checking pressure and chlorine levels or measuring water flow, Sarah is constantly on the move at the plant and doesn’t spend much time at her desk. "Sometimes I can be so busy, I have to ask myself at the end of my shift…‘Okay, did I sit down today?’” She also enjoys interacting with the public, even if it’s just answering their concerns over the phone. "I love when people are concerned enough about the quality of their water to ask questions.” 

But sometimes people can become overly concerned or anxious. National tragedies such as Walkerton, where seven Canadians died and hundreds more became sick due to improperly treated water, have made the public much more aware of the importance of being vigilant about water treatment. Sarah notes that one of the toughest parts of her job is "when you have someone yelling at you or calling you names on the other end of the phone line because they’re worried their water might be polluted.” To ease these people’s concerns, she must also be part psychologist.

With the heightened national concern, Sarah finds her job more empowering than ever. On a tour of the facility with her family, a relative asked at the start, "So you just treat water? That’s all?” By the tour’s end, the relative understood that Sarah’s job is more than "just” treating water. It affects the daily lives of all Smiths Falls residents.