Team SLO WRRF, including Plan Manager Chris Lehman (photo by City of San Luis Obispo)

Veterans in Water: Chris Lehman Supervisor City of San Luis Obispo WRRF

Career Stories, Members in the News, Veterans in Water

Chris Lehman
City of San Luis Obispo WRRF
6 years US Navy, Radar Electrician

What is your role?

Water Resource Recovery Facility Supervisor at City of San Luis Obispo.

What inspired you to work in water?

In 2010 I left the Navy and moved back to California  [San Luis Obispo]. I was initially exploring returning to school to be a hydrologist. I had an interest in water efficiency and conservation.

As it turned out, I moved one block away from the wastewater treatment plant, so I took a tour. It all developed from there.

The first couple of years were challenging, but it was worth it. I worked for a year and half as an unpaid operator in training (OIT), which eventually turned into a full-time position. I lived frugally and made it through the internship. After I gained experience, I started to get job offers, but decided I would stick it out in San Luis Obispo (SLO).

The City helped me get the training I needed and helped other OITs and I get certified as wastewater treatment plant operators. We have exam study groups, where they provide prep materials, and get together to get ready for various certification exams. Four years later, I was able to obtain my California Grade V Wastewater Treatment Plant Operator certification.

About two  years ago, the plant saw more than half of the staff turnover in one year. Senior operators, maintenance technicians and management  retired and new people stepped up to take on their roles.

It has been an interesting success story for SLO. The internship program prepares people for future employment and they tend to advance quickly.

We are working on becoming an eligible training provider with the Employment Development Department (EDD) for veterans who need a career. Our newest maintenance tech was a Petty Officer who left the Navy after serving on a submarine as an electrician.

What fuels your passion?

I’m most interested in innovation and efficiency. I like to discover the way things are linked together.

We did an energy efficiency study with our power utility company at the plant in 2014. We were the first wastewater treatment plant to participate in the program in California. It was an opportunity to make things better and to implement new technology. As a newer operator, I was thrilled to be a part of the  project. Staff were directly engaged in researching and implementing new processes that impacted the entire community.

Lately we have to do more, and deliver a higher level of treatment with finite resources -everyone knows it.

I’m driven by data. At SLO we use Hach WIMs to store data and recently have implemented Hach Claros for mobile data collection. We are leading the country in the use of digital technology, right here in SLO. We have seen an improvement in accuracy, and gained greater access to crucial operational and maintenance parameters, and working towards eliminating paper logs entirely.

I’m always open to new things and that makes this job fun and exciting. There’s an ability here at the plant to contribute to the industry. We have a strong research partnership with the local State university. We all have a passion to make things better, and protect the environmental and public health of our community.

Why should veterans join this industry?

It’s a way to contribute, a way to give back to your community.

It’s also a stable career path with a growing number of opportunities. Many veterans are trained for control system operations or as electricians and those skills are currently in high demand in the water sector.

This is also an exciting and challenging career path. There is an underlining dynamic – how do we meet increasingly stringent regulatory requirements without dramatically increasing costs. We are working with cutting edge technologies that are a mix of mechanical, electrical, biological, and even artificial intelligence.

Working here at the treatment plant you are really part of the community, it’s an opportunity to give back.

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