Water Treatment and Distribution Operator

Water treatment and distribution operators oversee the activities and processes that go into treating and distributing municipal drinking water.

Water treatment and distribution can be two different jobs: in larger centres, treatment operators work only in the treatment plant, while distribution operators are responsible for the system of pipes and pumps that carries drinking water to commercial and residential customers. In smaller towns and municipalities, the same person might be responsible for both water treatment and distribution. Both water treatment and distribution operators are responsible for monitoring water quality and play a key role in protecting public health.

At a glance

Imagine it is a warm, sunny spring day, and as you drive to work along the river, you can't help but notice how high water levels are at this time of year. You are a water treatment and distribution operator at the City's main drinking water plant. Spring's swollen rivers signal the busiest time of year for you. Your plant draws water from the river and treats it to make it safe for drinking, but at this time of year, spring run-off clouds the river water with sediment and debris. You and your team of operators at the plant must take extra precautions to ensure the city's drinking water is properly treated. As a water treatment and distribution operator, you know the entire city depends on you to keep its water supply safe. Your work day is spent monitoring equipment, collecting samples, and evaluating treatment processes to make certain everything is functioning properly. Today you start by checking the chemical metering equipment that adds coagulant to the raw river water as it is pumped into the treatment plant. The coagulant is a chemical compound that forces small bits of dirt and debris to adhere to each other, forming larger particles that are easier to settle or filter out of the water. With the extra sediment in the river water during spring, it's even more important that the coagulation process runs smoothly. After coagulation, you check the chorine disinfection system. Spring run-off also means higher counts of bacteria and other pathogens, so extra chlorine must be added to the water to remove these micro-organisms. You check the latest results from the lab and adjust the chlorine feed rate accordingly. Next it's the filters, which remove more suspended particles to meet water quality guidelines. At this time of year, you must pay close attention to the filters and ensure the filter media and clarifier basins are emptied or changed out more frequently. You will also have to check the equipment that adds fluoride, caustic acid, and ammonia before the treated water is pumped into the city's distribution system. As the spring run-off continues, you will be extra vigilant monitoring equipment and taking more water samples to ensure the treatment plant is doing its job keeping the drinking water safe.

Job duties

Duties vary significantly from job to job, but the following list includes typical job duties one might encounter as a water treatment and distribution operator:
  • Regulate water quality and production using analytical and flow monitoring equipment in compliance with environmental guidelines.
  • 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.
  • Troubleshoot and make adjustments to pumping systems to resolve distribution issues.
  • Monitor chemical supplies, receive and unload chemicals, and change chemical cylinders when required, following proper safety procedures for handling dangerous chemicals such as chlorine, fluoride, and alum.
  • Evaluate, maintain, and repair equipment, tanks, and storage containers.
  • Prepare reports and maintain operating logs.
  • Monitor Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) equipment.
  • Respond to complaints from the public and inquiries from superiors and regulators.

Work environment

Water treatment and distribution 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
  • Chlorinating new or repaired distribution pipes
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 water treatment and distribution operators can find employment. They include:
  • Municipal governments
  • Public inspection agencies
  • Private utility companies
  • Firms in other industries requiring water treatment, 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 water treatment and distribution 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 water treatment and distribution operator is a high school diploma. If you are a post-secondary student considering a career as a water treatment and distribution operator, the following programs are most applicable:
  • Water and Wastewater Technology
  • Environmental Technology
  • Engineering Technology
  • Water Resources
Many water treatment and distribution operators have additional training in repairing mechanical and electrical equipment. Most provinces require certification for water treatment and distribution operators. Operator certification has three requirements: education, experience, and a written exam.


A water treatment and distribution operator in an entry level position makes an average of $38,000 per year in Canada. With several years of education and experience, water treatment plant operators make an average of $53,000 per year.

Role Model

Simon Martel

I like nature and love water. When I was younger I spent summers at my parent’s place by a lake in the Laurentian Mountains. I grew up enjoying water and this led to my career in water treatment. A water treatment plant is like a river in a building. It never stops flowing and it touches all the sciences. Operation of a water treatment plant involves knowledge of electricity, physics, chemistry and microbiology. I started doing this type of work sixteen years ago and I still enjoy it very much. I attained my water treatment operator training in 1986 and started my first position in the water treatment field. As I gained experience I also continued to educate myself by attending college courses at night for ten years to earn my degree. It was motivating for me to apply what I had learned at college to solve problems the following day at work. I progressed from assistant operator to operator and then to water treatment filtration plant technician. My responsibility in water treatment is to never put people at risk. The plant where I work supplies water to a large city and a surrounding area within fifteen kilometres. The experience I have gained allows me to view problems with the solution in mind and fix things quickly before there is risk to anyone. You have to keep learning to stay current. There are new things happening in water treatment technology that will result in more automation of plant processes and increased sophistication of chemical analysis. Memberships in associations allow me to attend conferences and seminars where I can learn about these advances and see the new equipment. There is also the opportunity to gain valuable knowledge through unique experiences at work. Long periods of dry weather cause increases in water use as people water their lawns and wash their cars. As the dry days continue the water treatment plant functions at full capacity twenty-four hours per day with peak usage at seven to nine in the evening. Knowing what to do in these situations to avoid a crisis can only be learned by experience. In Canada all large cities require a water treatment plant and operators to run the plant. There is also good opportunity for employment in this field with beverage and chemical industries. The last twenty years have been a growth period for the water treatment field and it looks like the growth will continue in the future. I plan on advancing my skills to the point where I can manage a water treatment plant and make the changes necessary to bring that plant up to the top level of functioning by adding new equipment, technology and processes. There will always be a demand for good water. There are good things and not so good things with every job. Sometimes my job involves routine tasks and if I am working the night shift it can be lonely. You need to be able to enjoy working alone for this reason. Other times this work can demand your full attention to keep the plant running smoothly or quickly find solutions to problems. The best advice I can give are the words that were told to me by my high school teacher. He said to «always do your job the best you can” and I know that one of the reasons I have been successful in my career is because I followed his advice. The typical week is thirty-six hours either on rotation day, evening or night shift. At work I do laboratory analysis, process control, tours of the plant, monitoring of indicators and proportioning of chemical product concentration. I need to have rapid data analysis skills as well as knowledge of chemicals and technical information systems. It is also important for me to keep well informed of weather conditions to anticipate problems and adjust plant processes. My shift schedule sometimes requires me to work seven days in a row but then I get to take five days off and this is time I can spend with my family. One of the reasons I like working shifts is I enjoy having days off when most other people are working. A water treatment plant is a chain of basins that hold water and are linked to each other by channels and pipes. Water is sampled in these basins and treated in response to the results of laboratory analysis. The chemical treatments take time to show their effects in the water quality and the rate of water flow between basins also affects chemical concentrations. It can be difficult to know if we can wait for changes or if more chemicals are needed. To help solve this problem I developed a program to time the movement of water. Using volume and flow rates the program calculates all the times that are required for water to change basins. From this information we are able to tell if we have given the chemicals long enough contact time to react. As a result we can accurately use treatments when the quality of raw water changes quickly, minimize the use of chemicals and still ensure a safe supply of water.