Water and Wastewater Treatment Plant and System Operators

Career, Salary and Education Information

What Water and Wastewater Treatment Plant and System Operators Do[About this section] [To Top]

Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators manage a system of machines, often through the use of control boards, to transfer or treat water or wastewater.

Duties of Water and Wastewater Treatment Plant and System Operators

Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators typically do the following:

  • Add chemicals, such as ammonia or chlorine, to disinfect water or other liquids
  • Inspect equipment on a regular basis
  • Monitor operating conditions, meters, and gauges
  • Collect and test water and sewage samples
  • Record meter and gauge readings and operational data
  • Operate equipment to purify and clarify water or to process or dispose of sewage
  • Clean and maintain equipment, tanks, filter beds, and other work areas
  • Follow U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations
  • Ensure safety standards are met

It takes a lot of work to get water from natural sources—reservoirs, streams, and groundwater—into people’s taps. Similarly, it is a complicated process to convert the wastewater from drains and sewers into a form that is safe to release into the environment.

The specific duties of plant operators depend on the type and size of the plant. In a small plant, one operator may be responsible for maintaining all of the systems. In large plants, multiple operators work the same shifts and are more specialized in their duties, often relying on computerized systems to help them monitor plant processes.

Water treatment plant and system operators work in water treatment plants. Fresh water is pumped from wells, rivers, streams, or reservoirs to water treatment plants, where it is treated and distributed to customers. Water treatment plant and system operators run the equipment, control the processes, and monitor the plants that treat water to make it safe to drink.

Wastewater treatment plant and system operators do similar work to remove pollutants from domestic and industrial waste. Used water, also known as wastewater, travels through sewer pipes to treatment plants where it is treated and either returned to streams, rivers, and oceans, or used for irrigation.

Work Environment for Water and Wastewater Treatment Plant and System Operators[About this section] [To Top]

Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators held about 117,000 jobs in 2014, of which 78 percent were in local government. About 11 percent worked for water, sewage, and other systems utilities.

Injuries and Illnesses

Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators work both indoors and outdoors. They may be exposed to noise from machinery and are often exposed to unpleasant odors. Operators’ work is physically demanding and usually is performed in locations that are unclean or difficult to access.

They must pay close attention to safety procedures because of hazardous conditions, such as slippery walkways, the presence of dangerous gases, and malfunctioning equipment. As a result, workers experience an occupational injury and illness rate that is much higher than the average for all occupations.

Operators are trained in emergency management procedures and use safety equipment to protect their health, as well as that of the public.

Water and Wastewater Treatment Plant and System Operator Work Schedules

Most water and waste treatment plant and system operators work full time. Plants operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In small plants, operators are likely to work during the day and be on call nights and weekends. In medium- and large-size plants that require constant monitoring, operators work in shifts to control the plant at all hours.

Occasionally, operators must work during emergencies. For example, weather conditions may cause large amounts of stormwater or wastewater to flow into sewers, exceeding a plant’s capacity. Emergencies may also be caused by malfunctions within a plant, such as chemical leaks or oxygen deficiencies.

How to Become a Water Treatment Plant or System Operator[About this section] [To Top]

Get the education you need: Find schools for Water and Wastewater Treatment Plant and System Operators near you!

Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators typically need a high school diploma and a license to work. They also typically undergo on-the-job training.

Water and Wastewater Treatment Plant and System Operator Education

Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators need a high school diploma or equivalent to become operators. Employers may prefer applicants who have completed a certificate or an associate’s degree program in a related field such as environmental science or wastewater treatment technology, as it reduces the amount of training a worker will need. These programs are generally offered at community colleges, technical schools, and trade associations.

Water and Wastewater Treatment Plant and System Operator Training

Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators need long-term on-the-job training to become fully qualified. Trainees usually start as attendants or operators-in-training and learn their skills on the job under the direction of an experienced operator. The trainees learn by observing and doing routine tasks, such as recording meter readings, taking samples of wastewater and sludge, and performing simple maintenance and repair work on plant equipment.

Larger treatment plants usually combine this on-the-job training with formal classroom or self-paced study programs. As plants get larger and more complicated, operators need more skills before they are allowed to work without supervision.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators must be licensed by the state in which they work. Requirements and standards vary widely depending on the state.

State licenses typically have multiple levels, which indicate the operator's experience and training. Although some states will honor licenses from other states, operators who move from one state to another may need to take a new set of exams to become licensed in their new state.

Advancement for Water and Wastewater Treatment Plant and System Operators

Most states have multiple levels of licenses for water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators. Each increase in license level allows the operator to control a larger plant and more complicated processes without supervision.

At the largest plants, operators who have the highest license level work as shift supervisors and may be in charge of large teams of operators.

Important Qualities for Water and Wastewater Treatment Plant and System Operators

Analytical skills. Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators must conduct tests and inspections on water or wastewater and evaluate the results.

Detail oriented. Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators must monitor machinery, gauges, dials, and controls to ensure everything is operating properly. Because tap water and wastewater are highly regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, operators must be careful and thorough in completing these tasks.

Math skills. Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators must have the ability to apply data to formulas that determine treatment requirements, flow levels, and concentration levels.

Mechanical skills. Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators must know how to work with machines and use tools. They must be familiar with how to operate, repair, and maintain equipment.

Water and Wastewater Treatment Plant and System Operator Salaries[About this section] [More salary/earnings info] [To Top]

The median annual wage for water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators was $44,790 in May 2015. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $27,120, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $70,940.

Most water and waste treatment plant and system operators work full time. Plants operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In small plants, operators are likely to work during the day and be on call nights and weekends. In medium- and large-size plants that require constant monitoring, operators work in shifts to control the plant at all hours.

Occasionally, operators must work during emergencies. For example, weather conditions may cause large amounts of stormwater or wastewater to flow into sewers, exceeding a plant’s capacity. Emergencies also may be caused by malfunctions within a plant, such as chemical leaks or oxygen deficiencies.

Union Membership

Compared with workers in all occupations, water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators had a higher percentage of workers who belonged to a union in 2014.

Job Outlook for Water and Wastewater Treatment Plant and System Operators[About this section] [To Top]

Employment of water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators is projected to grow 6 percent from 2014 to 2024, about as fast as the average for all occupations.

A growing population and increased demand for water and wastewater treatment services will drive employment growth. Population growth, particularly in suburban areas, will require new plants or increased capacity at current plants. As existing plants expand and new plants are built to meet this demand, new operator jobs will be created.

New regulations often require plants to install new systems or features that operators need to control. As plants become more advanced with automated systems to manage treatment processes, fewer workers may be needed in plants. Although some work can be automated, plants will still need skilled workers to operate increasingly complex controls and water and wastewater systems.

Water and Wastewater Treatment Plant and System Operators Job Prospects

Job prospects for water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators should be excellent. Positions of older water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators who retire will need to be filled. Job prospects will be best for those with training or education in water or wastewater systems and good mechanical skills.

Employment projections data for Water and Wastewater Treatment Plant and System Operators, 2014-24
Occupational Title Employment, 2014 Projected Employment, 2024 Change, 2014-24
Percent Numeric
Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators 117,000 124,000 6 7,000


*Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. Used by permission.

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