by Eric Wolfe
Photos by John Storey
Reno’s water begins high in the Sierras, but it takes plenty of human ingenuity before that water reaches the tap. And for that, thank highly-skilled IBEW 1245 members employed by Truckee Meadows Water Authority.
The water comes from Lake Tahoe and other lakes and reservoirs in the Truckee River watershed. On the river’s approach to Reno, some of the water is diverted and carried by flumes to three power houses that can generate up to 6.7 megawatts.
“That energy is really important for TMWA [pronounced TUM-wah] because it helps offset their energy costs to treat and distribute water here in Reno, Sparks and Washoe County,” says John Stewart, an IBEW hydro operator at Verdi Powerhouse.
The on-going drought curtailed that power production for the summer, Stewart says, but over the past two years TMWA’s powerhouses have completely offset the costs of treating and pumping water—savings that get passed on to the TMWA’s customers.
Contrary to what you might think, curtailing power production makes more work for hydro operators like Stewart.
“We’re taking advantage of the opportunity to do a lot of maintenance projects you’re not able to do when there’s water in the river,” he says.
Stewart joined IBEW in 2014 “after seeing things in the past that made me want to be part of this union’s future—just how well they’ve done to negotiate our benefits, our pay increases.”
“I know it’s really hard out there, and people are struggling to get raises, and I feel that we’re treated 100% fairly and that’s due in part to the representation of our union.”
When it comes to flumes, Roy Callahan is TMWA’s go-to guy.
In the mid-1970s, while he was in college, Callahan spent summers as a temporary worker helping rebuild flumes for Sierra Pacific Power. Ownership of the water system, including the flumes, passed to TMWA in 2000, but Callahan is still the guy who knows these flumes better than anyone.
As a pipe inspector for TMWA, he oversees contractors at pump stations or wherever pipe is being put in the ground. When it became clear that the flume conveying water to Fleish Powerhouse needed replacing, TMWA turned to Callahan to oversee the work.
For generations the Fleish Flume has run alongside the mountain, visible to travelers along Interstate 80. But winters are hard on wooden structures and TMWA decided to bore a tunnel and run the new flume through a 1500-foot section of the mountain, protecting it from the weather.
Callahan takes obvious pride in getting the details right on a structure that should last for generations. “There’s a lot more to it than just building a box,” he says. Proper measurements are key to making sure that the turns aren’t too steep and that you don’t create unwanted lateral pressure as the water courses its way to the powerhouse.
“You want to make it nice and easy and gradual,” he says.
About TMWA, Callahan has nothing but praise, saying he likes the agency’s vision and the way it’s managed. “We’ve got a great group of guys working … It’s a pleasure to come to work and do what I’m doing.”
Callahan first learned about the IBEW from his father, who was a machinist at Tracy Power Plant.
“He talked about the security, and the camaraderie with other union members,” Callahan recalls. “This is a right-to-work state, so people have a choice (about belonging to the union), but to choose not to belong doesn’t make any sense to me. The more members the stronger you become.”
IBEW members don’t just wrangle the Truckee River into the hydro plant, they’re waiting downstream to tame that river into something you can welcome into your house. Ted Saxe is foreman of a four-man crew that runs the Chalk Bluff Water Treatment plant 24-hours a day in 12-hour shifts.
“We take water from the Truckee River, we clean it up and make it drinkable,” says Saxe. In a process known as flocculation, particles are coaxed out of the water, which is then gravity fed through filters “to really clean it up.”
A disinfectant—sodium hypochlorite—is added to meet legal requirements, but care is taken to not over-chlorinate, says Saxe.
“We take pride in what we do. We strive to put out a good product, even as far as how it tastes. Getting the water to the people with good pressure and good quality is the main thing. We take a lot of pride in that.”
Saxe started at Sierra Pacific Power in 1985 as a meter reader, moved to the water side of the business in 1992, and stayed the course when TMWA took over in 2000. He says the IBEW helps TMWA employees get “a livable wage” and helps make sure that operators are recognized for the important role they play at the agency.
Some days you’ll find Sheryl Houlihan and Mike Witt at one of MTWA’s three treatment plants, taking deliveries, repairing lines, or otherwise maintaining four 8,000-gallon tanks of chemicals. On other days you might find them taking those chemicals to wherever they are needed.
On July 23, when the Utility Reporter was visiting, Houlihan and Witt were at the Chalk Bluff plant, getting ready to head out to a well that has been out of service for five years. With the Truckee shrunken by drought, TMWA has relied increasingly on a system of ground water wells to quench their customers’ thirst. The number of wells in TMWA’s service area more than doubled after the recent merger with the Washoe County Department of Water Resources.
Fortunately, the workforce has also been expanded to deal with the extra workload. Houlihan came over from Sierra Pacific Power way back when; Witt came from Washoe County at the beginning of the year.
Houlihan says ground water is much easier to treat than river water because there’s no sediment to contend with. “Basically, with the wells, we add the bleach and that’s it,” she says. The main issue is to make sure they get the dose just right.
Witt hired on in 2005 at Washoe County, where his interests were represented by an association that included management. Wages lagged there, and they had to take pay cuts in recent years, so he welcomed the move to TMWA at the beginning of the year, saying they offered the incoming workers “great positions.”
Houlihan has been a member of IBEW 1245 for nearly 23 years. To her, the union means equality:
“It means I’m getting the same wages as everybody else. I don’t have to go negotiate. I know you guys are taking care of that for me. And that’s huge.”
The call came in as “urgent” so Greg Bates and his crew cut their lunch short and headed out.
“It’s only a three-quarter inch water line,” said Bates, surveying the damage. “It shouldn’t have been bad.”
But it was bad, and if you’re not ready for the unexpected then brother, you’re in the wrong business. The leak was in a giant sand pocket.
“Everything just imploded, everything fell in, like a big sink hole,” Bates said. There was a gas main adjacent to the hole, and a gas service, and some big cement pillars, adding urgency to the task at hand.
They started vacuuming out water, but the “vac” truck filled up before they could get down to the valve to shut off the service. As a backup they got two pumps going and waited for the vac truck to return.
“It’s just like beach sand,” said Bates, keeping a wary eye on the hole. “With the water in it, it just flows.” He estimated the little ¾-inch leak could turn into a 12-hour job. Not ideal, but these guys take it as it comes, and stay on it until it’s done. Because that’s just what they do.
In quieter moments you might find Bates rustling up members for the monthly union meeting. Like other unit chairs, he knows you have to go the extra mile to publicize the meetings and encourage members to attend.
In the days before each meeting Bates tacks up posters on all the bulletin boards, puts additional copies on every work table in the ready room, makes verbal announcements there as well, and sends out emails to the entire bargaining unit. He’s been a shop steward for 20 years and thinks the value of the union is pretty obvious:
“We’ve kept people from losing their jobs on several occasions. So there’s power there.” The union brings power to the bargaining table, too, which are a couple of good reasons why Bates plans to keep posting those meeting notices.
You have to be quick to keep up with Amanda Filut. As a service utility worker, she can read customer meters from her vehicle, thanks to transmitters located on customer meters. She also updates the transmitters when needed (but she has to get out of the truck to do that.)
No business survives without cash, and the meter is where the skilled services provided by IBEW Local 1245 members get converted into revenue to keep TMWA afloat.
Filut is a seven-year IBEW member and currently serves on the union’s benefits committee.
“In the beginning I had no interest in doing it, but I was asked to do it and I said, ‘Why not?’”
It’s a chance to learn more about the union—and do her part to defend the benefits the union has negotiated for the members.