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Like many in this industry, this was not my first draft choice as a career. Ever since I was a little girl, I knew I wanted to work with people like Jacques Cousteau and be a marine biologist, because that was the “sexy” water career everyone knew about. However, growing up in the desert southwest, marine biology was not in the playbook for me. So, the next best thing was limnology.

Immediately after graduating high school, I started my water career working for the Lake Mead Limnological Research Center at UNLV. I worked with a group of university students led by researchers who traveled up and down the Colorado River system and all over Lake Mead to collect and analyze water samples. It was this unique group of people that first exposed me to the intimate and important relationship between wastewater, drinking water, the environment, and our communities.

Eventually, I took a position working in the laboratory at the Clark County Water Reclamation District and was able to work closely with the treatment plant operators. I had the opportunity to work with them on assessing treatment performance, setting up and performing jar test experiments, and optimizing treatment processes. I found their work to be so dynamic and fascinating that I eventually took a voluntary demotion – yes, a voluntary demotion – to become a wastewater treatment plant operator.

At that time, our facility was transitioning from a trickling filter plant to activated sludge with biological nutrient removal capabilities. I remember sitting in a training class where the instructor talked about the biochemical reactions taking place in the process and I was excited because it made sense. I actually understood it! I remarked on this light bulb moment by saying that I had no idea that wastewater treatment was so fascinating and yet made so much sense because of the things I had learned in my high school and college biology classes. To which the instructor remarked, “How could you? You’re just an operator.”

“Just an operator” … Those words have stuck with me throughout the years and despite my efforts to learn more, to become a better operator, and to help others become better operators, it seemed that all we would ever be in the anyone’s eyes was “just an operator”. 

Thankfully, the passionate water and wastewater volunteers and the Association of Boards of Certification (ABC) had a vision. This team envisioned a time when water and wastewater operators would be publicly recognized for the important role we play in our communities by protecting public health and the environment. ABC created the Certification Commission for Environmental Professionals (C2EP) to develop the Professional Operator program we have today. 

So what is the Professional Operator program? It is a certification program developed by operators for operators. Harris Seidel said that certification is about the 3 E’s: Education, Experience and Examination. I’d like to add that there is a fourth E: Ethics. The Professional Operator eligibility requirements are some of the highest standards of the industry. There are strict requirements for education and experience that must be met before being eligible to sit for the exam. The exam must be passed to demonstrate competency. Lastly, the PO Code of Conduct must be adhered to and continuing education requirements met in order to maintain certification.

The PO designation means that I am part of an elite team of passionate, dedicated, and extremely competent water and wastewater professionals. I challenge each and every one of you to join our team and become an MVP – Most Valuable Professional - because it means never having to acknowledge that you are “just an operator” … It means being able to say, “I am LeAnna Risso and I am a Professional Operator.”
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C2EP is committed to protecting public health and the environment through certification and professional designation of water industry professionals.
© 2014 ABC