In a unanimous vote taken at its regular monthly meeting last week, the governing board of the Garberville Sanitary District approved a new three-year contract with the district’s general manager, Ralph Emerson.
The contract, which runs through Sept. 1, 2019, calls for a series of pay raises, beginning with an immediate hike from the $78,000 a year that Emerson has been making to $102,000. On July 1 of next year his annual salary will receive another boost — to $114,000. In July 2018 it is scheduled to get kicked up even higher — to $120,000 a year.
Board member Gary Wellborn said on Monday that Emerson, who came to the district over two years ago after serving as operations manager at the Murphy’s Sanitary District in the Sierra Nevada foothills, has been due for a raise for some time.
“In my opinion he’s been underpaid,” he said.
Wellborn should know. He holds a drinking water treatment license and often receives notices in the mail from water districts looking for qualified technical staff. “The going rate for a beginning water operator in the Sacramento water district is in the $60,000 range,” he pointed out.
In an interview last Friday, Emerson made clear that the district’s one-and-a-half-year-old drinking water treatment plant, located just northeast of the Southern Humboldt Community Park, has been one of his bigger challenges.
The plant, which was in the works when Emerson came on the job, has been dogged by a series of operational problems.
“It was poorly designed. It wasn’t working correctly and the equipment was not compatible,” Emerson explained, describing the situation when he came on the job.
A fundamental flaw was that because two different computer systems operated different parts of the plant, there were software interface difficulties.
“The computers didn’t communicate well. If one computer doesn’t speak to another, you have a problem,” Emerson said.
In terms of specific malfunctions, Emerson said that for a time the plant’s “chemical feeding equipment was not working right.” He also pointed to an episode last summer in which the treatment plant shut down due to hot weather.
The cause had to do with the fact that the plant’s electronics and panels are located on a west-facing wall and that the plant building had no insulation and no cooling system. The fix was to install a cooling unit inside the panel that overheated.
Another improvement that was made was to build an office at the treatment facility for the plant’s operators. “It’s extremely noisy with the motors running, so it’s a way to get out of the noise,” Emerson said.
To hear him tell it, the plant today runs more smoothly than in the past. “As time has gone by, we’ve been able to isolate problems and figure out solutions. It’s taken more time than it should have, but we’ve found ways to work through it.”
He emphasized that the plant, which draws water from the South Fork of the Eel River, provides “very efficient, high quality water.” But he didn’t deny that the plant remains something of a difficult child.
“The plant is not hearty. It’s very temperamental [in an electronic sense.] The slightest voltage increase will cause a breaker to trip.”
“It operates on pressure and one change in pressure will shut the plant down,” he added.
Wellborn, for his part, praised Emerson for handling a problematic situation. “He’s done a good job with what he’s working with. They’ve learned to work around it. [The facility] takes a lot of effort to babysit.”
Like Emerson, Wellborn said that the plant, despite its drawbacks, produces good water. While it’s considered surface water, Wellborn said the water the plant treats is actually drawn from the South Fork’s underflow — in other words, the portion of the river that flows under gravel and is not visible.
“It runs through gravel for miles, so it’s clean to start with,” he remarked.