Local 21 Members Work to Ensure South Bay's Wastewater Gets Clean and Stays Clean

It’s one of those conveniences we use several times a day.  Flushing a toilet.  Rinsing food from dishes.  Washing our hands.  But few ever think about where that water goes.

When you’re cleaning 100 million gallons of sewage water every day, you need several people monitoring the complex system of flow.

“We’re the eyes in the sky for field operators,” says Steve Contreras, Jr., one of 40 of Local 21’s Association of Maintenance Supervisory Personnel (AMSP) Members who work San Jose’s Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility.  The Facility treats sewage water for San Jose’s 1 million residents, as well as those living in nearby Milpitas, Santa Clara, Los Gatos and Saratoga.

Exactly how much water is 100 million gallons?  Every 24 hours, the Facility is treating the equivalent of 152 Olympic-sized pools.  Once treated, most water is released into the South San Francisco Bay.  Some is recycled for irrigation or industrial usage.

Steve is a wastewater operations foreperson at the Facility’s Distributed Control System, housed in what workers affectionately refer to as the “computer room.”  After highly technical training, AMSP Members rotate through 12-hour shifts monitoring 15 screens illuminating several process graphics each.

“The computer room is the brain of the Plant.  There are six processes for treating wastewater.  The monitors represent important pieces of the equipment,” says Steve, an 18-year veteran of the City and president of AMSP.

Those in the computer room communicate via walkie talkies with co-workers across the 2,600-acre plant.  On a recent February day, Steve and AMSP Member Mark Nicholl were working the computer room.  That morning, the screens showed higher-than-typical levels of chlorine in some water with flashing red and yellow graphics.  Steve and Mark worked with Operating Engineers Local 3 Members to find a fix.

“We investigate and solve problems,” Steve says.  “If the Plant stopped working, the flow would still come here and flood the place and cause a disaster in that sense.”  For the public, it would send water sewage to the Bay, with flow going into the town of Alviso.  Sewer lines would back up. 

The typical service call to the computer room is for inoperative pumps – either they are failing, or need to be taken offline for maintenance/replacement.

In late February, the Facility experienced a power outage.  Steve estimated that workers had less than an hour to get power back on so that pumps can move sewage – or else it starts backing up or overflowing without being treated.

“Everyone worked to get the power up, and plant up and running. We still had sewage coming in. We had to move pretty swiftly to figure out why we had the power out,” he said. 

Though the computer room can be stressful at times, Mark and Steve like the atmosphere.

“I like the complexity of the job,” says Mark, who’s worked at San Jose for six years. “There are so many things that can go wrong, so many things that can go right.  It’s a constant adventure.”

Through extensive training, passion for their work and calm demeanors in the face of adversity, Local 21 Members are here to make sure the environment is safe and clean.