Friday, July 03, 2009

Other Duties as Assigned

Part of our job as operators at the water plant is to respond to customer complaints. We're lucky; we have very few. In the four and a half years I've been at the plant, we've averaged about three a year.

I'm not just tooting my own horn when I say our water is outstanding. We're lucky to have great quality source water in the Bear River and to be the first municipal user on that source. We fill Sulphur Creek Reservoir from the Bear River, but when water sits still for any period of time, it's apt to grow strong green algae in wide, sticky blooms and to dissolve solids like ash, animal fecal matter, dead fish, and dirt, the taste and odor of which are very hard to remove. We do our best to avoid it (especially if we have any sampling to do), but sometimes in the spring when the river turns to mud due to snowmelt in the Uinta Mountains, we have to switch to Sulphur Creek for a month, and sometimes in the late summer when our use of the river is restricted, we have to run a blend of river and reservoir.

Some people claim they can tell when we're on reservoir water, and I don't doubt them. We have to use more polymer and chlorine with Sulphur Creek water, so in general it's not the organics causing taste and odor problems, it's the chemicals. Chlorine is most detectable as an odor when your dosage is too low, actually, but people just assume we're putting too much in if they can smell it in their tap water. And right now, we actually are slightly overdosing; we have some samples to take that we can't risk any bacterial contamination in, and we were getting some unpredictable water out of the river when we switched back to it last week, so I wasn't suprised when Robbie took a complaint call Wednesday and made and appointment for that afternoon to go check it out.

The thing about water complaints is that 9 out of 10 times, the complainer is either elderly, infirm, retired, disabled, a little crazy, or some combination of these things. I'm not saying they're unreasonable complaints; I'm just saying that people who are at home all day get tired of Oprah and Ellen and are apt to pay more attention to what's coming out of their faucet. They are also often starved for conversation and company. On 9 out of 10 visits we make, we get a life story (whether we want it or not; I tend to encourage them, being curious and fairly compassionate [no, really]), most of them sad, some of them shocking. Wednesday's was no different.

We drove around the back of a compound of low-income housing units on the south side of town, right above the river floodplain, and drove through the parking area where some men were peering under the hood of an ancient Chinook RV with peeling brown and orange stripes. We found the correct building near the deserted office and a sandy playground where a few healthy-looking children were swinging and entered through the heavy gray metal door. The exteriors of the structures were bland and the interiors were bleak; the unit we were looking for was on the first floor, behind the staircase in a concrete hall choked with cigarette smoke. We knocked and got no answer, so we went back to the truck to call the customer, a cell number with a Utah area code. As Robbie was dialing, a lanky man with scruffy clothes, hair, and beard, a cigarette and an odd gait strolled up and hailed us, recognizing the City emblem on our truck.

"I thought I was watching, but I must have missed you. Had my head under a hood. You been here long?" The voice was a strange growly whine. We assured him we had just arrived and followed him past a blood-colored spill on the sidewalk, which looked to be, on closer inspection, glittery red nail polish. By the time we reached the metal door (he put his palm, lit cigarette wedged between index and middle fingers, directly in the center of the "No Smoking" sign as he pulled the door open) we had already seen the zig-zagging scar that ran the length of his spine: the beginning of his story, and the evidence of its truth. It made me forget to introduce myself and my coworker; he never asked for our names.

Robbie and I both being animal lovers, we were pleased to be cordially greeted by a very young, surprisingly nimble basset hound with mismatched eyes (one brown, one silver) and one long, soft ear dappled gray. At first glance I thought he was a very large Dachshund; "the runt," said his owner. He was chewing on a mule deer antler (a shed, said our host proudly, which the dog found himself), and there were more antlers mounted on the walls. The small living/dining area, which was cluttered but relatively clean, also held a couch, a large cage containing two parakeets (one blue, one yellow), a TV stand with a small TV, a coffee table strewn with hunting magazines, several blankets, and a dining table covered with stacks of papers and photographs in frames. The walls were covered with hunting calendars and childrens' drawings.

We squeezed into the shoe box of a kitchen and set about sampling the tap water for chlorine and discussing possible solutions to the problem. The dog watched us from under the table, gnawing on his his prize, occasionally coming to wind his long body around our legs and bring us other toys.

Our customer was attentive as we explained the high chlorine residual (time of year, looped distribution main) and the procedure for flushing taps, and he demonstrated the little screw-on DuPont filter he had installed, which removed almost all of the chlorine residual (from .91 mg/L to .02 mg/L, which is normal for even a cheap charcoal filter). We couldn't smell the "putrid" smell, and he conceded it was more of a chemical odor, probably the chlorine. But throughout our visit he constantly circled the conversation around to his health problems and his children and ex-wives, producing X-rays from a closet and photographs from his battered leather wallet.

We learned that his last wife had left him with his two girls (very pretty, happy-looking girls, who must know they have a doting father), 11 and 14 at the time, and that the oldest girl had since had a son and the youngest is now 18. He had buried two sons from his first marriage, one killed at 14 by a blow to the head from the hoof of a deer he was trying to free from a barbed wire fence (they found him face down with his arms at his sides, having tried to walk home; the deer had stumbled 15 feet and died as well), the other at 19, shot in the face by a friend when he refused to drive him somewhere to complete a drug deal. One remaining son was completing a prison sentence in Utah for a crime he claims he didn't commit, a stabbing during a bar brawl he says he doesn't remember. His picture was on the table, long, straight black hair and blue prison tunic, blank face.

The X-rays, held up to the dim kitchen bulb, showcased a variety of steel brackets and giant screws, the two lowest of which had pierced and broken both hip bones when his 250 lb. "little brother" threw him down during an argument and jumped on him. The brother had given him a fine lacquered maple cane he was obviously fond of, but he admitted to rarely using it. "It's demeaning, you know?" (I thought of Dad and the wheelchair he loathed and I nodded.) Doctors suggest another surgery with an 85% chance of paralyzation, but if he doesn't have it he'll eventually be unable to walk anyway. His hips already grind with each step, hence the strange swinging gait. He refuses to use any more morphine.

We were just sympathetic enough to satisfy him, apparently, and he was pacified by promises to flush a hydrant on the main and suggestions to flush his taps, even though he pays for the water he uses. He hadn't talked to management about the problem but said others in the building agreed that the water -- which he insisted was normally the best water he had ever tasted anywhere-- just wasn't right. (People are highly suggestible or may not want to disagree and provoke and argument; we haven't had any other calls from the complex or anywhere else on that end of town.) The high chlorine residual rules out a water softener (when incorrectly adjusted they can make the water taste salty and bitter) and the aerators on his taps, when inspected, proved to be clean (they can get clogged with flakes of calcium and grow bacteria).

I don't think we'll be hearing from him again about the water, however. I believe he really is unsatisfied with it, but we're bringing down the chlorine dose due to better source water and with his little filter and a good hydrant flushing he should notice an improvement. But I suspect that most of our calls really aren't about the water. They're about life. At 52 a man who might ordinarily be healthy and able, working towards retirement and spoiling his grandson, is instead eking by on a disability check in a small, cramped apartment on the outskirts of town. He has scars on his body and heart and needs someone to tell about the pain and frustration, about life not being fair.

We left him at his door with the friendly, well-mannered dog and the children on swings in the sand and the sunshine of July, having done all we could do. Having listened.


Blogger mister anchovy said...

Great story!

July 5, 2009 at 4:51 AM  
Blogger Allison said...

I had no idea what goes on at a water plant. It sounds crazy, but given my cubicle-bound work history (Brent can testify) it's interesting to read about working in the field.

July 7, 2009 at 1:30 PM  

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