Volunteer Spotlight: Zack Wallin

This fall’s volunteer spotlight is the one and only Zack Wallin.

Our volunteers dedicate their time and resources with a hope that they can make a difference, but that’s not to say they don’t get something back from their involvement. Being a GWS volunteer provides wastewater professionals with a place to channel their passions, increase their networks, and develop their skills further in a market they typically may not have had the chance to experience. It’s a great place for young professionals to learn and get involved in CSWEA early! One of our new young professional volunteers deserves a shout-out! Zack is a 2016 graduate from UW Platteville and was a winner of the 2016 student design competition. He traveled to Costa Rica in August with the GWS team and has since remained very actively involved, even though his duties as student design winner were complete after WEFTEC. He played a crucial role in the completion of the preliminary design for the Bahia Ballena project during the competition phase and continues to be flexible and dedicated to the project’s success. He now serves as Student Design Chair.

Liz: How did you decide to work on the GWS project for your senior design project?

Zack: I originally decided to study environmental engineering because I wanted to provide people in the USA, and abroad with access to clean water. As my time in college progressed, I discovered that I also really enjoy the wastewater side of things, and that there is a big need for improved sanitation worldwide that often goes unnoticed. When I saw the opportunity to be a part of the solution to a wastewater issue in Costa Rica as a senior design project, I could not resist.

L: What type of treatment system did you and your team recommend and how did you decide that was best?

Z: Well to start, here are a few quick things to note about the project, to help readers understand: Costa Rica has few wastewater treatment facilities, many homes are on failing septic systems, so most Costa Rican communities do not know how to operate wastewater facilities. Most communities do have potable water systems, and have successfully managed them for some time now. The particular community that we worked with attracts and depends on revenue from tourists. The fast growing community is seeking to attract even more tourists. Electricity in Costa Rica can be unreliable, and is double the cost of electricity in the USA.

Now to answer your question, we first looked at potential sites, and created a decision matrix as to which site was preferred. We considered items such as odor, whether or not lift station(s) would be needed, the size of the site, and cost and ease of official acquisition to name a few. We wanted to select and design a process that would minimize adverse socioeconomic impacts, capital and O&M costs, power demands, and operator expertise to provide a solution that would fit the community well. In addition, we looked at treatment options that could produce the desired effluent quality and fit onto each of the sites. A mechanical treatment facility such as activated sludge requires a small area, but can be complicated to operate, whereas a lagoon is easy to operate, but requires much more land. The sites that were potentially available had a mixture of desirable and undesirable qualities, so we had to try to find a balance. One of the two finalist sites had a large enough area to fit a completely mixed aerated lagoon, and would require one lift station immediately preceding the treatment facility. However, the site was in prime real estate near the ocean and near the heart of the community, meaning potential for lost tourist revenue, and slower growth. At the time, acquiring the land was no guarantee as well. The other finalist site was too small for a lagoon, and would require a long force main with a higher elevation change than the other finalist site. However, the second finalist site was already owned by the government, was downwind of the community, and the land had little real estate value.

We went with a trickling filter system on the second finalist site that included primary and secondary sedimentation tanks, and an equalization basin. This system is easier to operate than traditional activated sludge, and requires less land than aerated lagoons, so our team felt that this system was a good compromise.

L: In what ways did traveling to Costa Rica with GWS add to what you learned during your undergraduate education, and particularly, your senior design project?

Z: Traveling to Costa Rica with GWS really emphasized the importance of communication, especially communication with various government entities, community members and other stakeholders. An idea is useless if it cannot be communicated accurately to people with different backgrounds and different experiences. I also learned more about the design process throughout the project and then during the visit to Costa Rica. Our team had redesigned our proposed solution a couple times through the semester, and then we ended up having to redesign again after competition as new information came out. We will have to redesign at least one more time due to new information we got during our visit. At times it was frustrating having to change things we had already worked so hard on, but it was good for us to realize that engineers have to be able to adjust and make good decisions as the project changes.

L: I agree the trip was frustrating at times, but definitely an incredible experience. On that note, why did you decide to stay involved in GWS?

Z: I decided to stay with GWS because I believe the work they are doing is going to make a big difference. There are billions of people that lack adequate sanitation, which can lead to preventable illness and disease. To undertake in the mission to try to save lives, and keep our world clean is an honorable cause. In addition, the people of GWS are great to work with. They have a wide variety of skills and backgrounds that I have already greatly benefited from, and I continue to learn from their experiences and guidance.

L: It’s definitely great to work for something you can believe in and be proud of. What are you working on now for GWS?

Z: Right now, I am helping with setting up the next student design competition. Because I went through the competition as a student, I have a unique perspective on how the competition was run, and how it can be improved.

L: And now that you’re done with school and out in the real world, has your work with GWS helped you in your job and if so, how?

Z: I would certainly say GWS has helped me with communication skills. Being exposed to the project, and working with other engineers across the Midwest has forced me to sharpen my communication skills. This has been really important, especially when interacting with contractors and at times, community members.

As a recent graduate, I do not have a ton of experience. GWS has given me an opportunity to gain experience faster than just working a job. From the work that I have done, am doing, and will do along with relationships with other engineers who help me along, I am learning and gaining experience which will pay dividends as I run into various challenges. Even now the additional experience has helped keep me calm when challenges arise, and I can contemplate solutions with a level head.

L: Why did you choose to make water/wastewater your career?

Z: I decided to make a career in water/wastewater for several reasons. I love the outdoors, and want to do my part in stewarding it well. I enjoy the technical side of things in the field. My belief in God has taught me that He wants to provide everyone with their most important needs. I want to reflect that by playing a role in providing people with essential needs such as sanitation and clean water.

L : What advice would you give to students who are about to begin work on their senior design projects?

Z: Find a way to get along with your design team. If you cannot get along with your design team, the project will be rough, and its chance at success will fall. If everyone works well together, the project has a better chance to succeed. Everyone is different, and has unique talents and mindsets that they can bring to the project. When there are conflicts, address them and seek to understand the other side first. I was fortunate in that our design team was able to work together well, which was really good for our project.

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