DM Water Works plant operators, freed from trailers, go home

Des Moines Water Works' deployed trailers for plant operators, since removed, during the beginning of the pandemic. The utility is choosing a new CEO. (Photo courtesy of Des Moines Water Works)

Des Moines Water Works plans to close its trailer city for plant operators Saturday after establishing a remote control center at an undisclosed location.

Over the past two months, 23 workers had lived in trailers at the three water works treatment plants in Des Moines, at Maffitt Reservoir southwest of the city and at Saylorville.

The operators worked two-week stints in the live-at-work scheme, set up to protect them from getting COVID-19. They put in 12-hour days, seven days a week.

A few worked two of the two-week stints, but most returned to their families after one two-week round of living with their colleagues. 

Ted Corrigan, acting CEO and general manager, said the four workers still living at the Fleur Drive main plant Friday will be free to go home Saturday. After a week or two, the final four rented trailers will be removed, he added. 

The utility, which serves 500,000 Central Iowa customers, rented 12 trailers at $100 each per day. The number rented dropped steadily as Water Works came up with new isolation methods, Corrigan said.

“We always intended for this to be a short-term, initial response” to the pandemic, Corrigan said in an interview. “We worked through the challenges we had separating staff. We are ready to be out of the trailers and to work normal shifts in an isolated and protected way.”

Water Works spent weeks coming up with new logistical plans to keep various teams separated, especially the plant operators.

“We started in a very conservative place. We couldn’t take a risk that we would be without water,” Corrigan said. “There were projections that 50% of the population would have this in a short period.”

But plant operators have lives, too. “We couldn’t ask them to do this for months and years,” Corrigan said of workers living at the foot of the main treatment plant, away from their families.

Kyle Danley, who leads water production at the plant, said there was early talk of having the operators sleep on separated air mattresses in the noisy plant. That idea was discarded. Most of the operators had a trailer to themselves, complete with smart TV, kitchen, restroom and shower.

“It wasn’t like camping at the campgrounds,” Danley said. “There wasn’t a roaring campfire at night after working a 12-hour shift.” Eventually, a two-week stint would turn into “sequester fatigue,” he added.

But workers agreed to the arrangement without protest, knowing that without their work, metro residents wouldn’t have water. It would have been virtually impossible to bring in operators unfamiliar with the plant to replace ill workers, he said.

Danley said Water Works had “minimal” absenteeism. He declined to say if any plant workers tested positive for COVID-19, citing privacy laws.

Corrigan said the staff worked to decentralize operations, and now is using online links for reporting and check-ins. Satellite-plant workers go straight to those facilities without going downtown.

“The big challenge for us was we had one control center for all three treatment plants and all 50 remote facilities,” Corrigan said. “That was nice and cost-effective but in a pandemic situation, that became a real liability for us. Using the same keyboard and desktops could result in real problems.”

Water Works set up a second control center — the location is secret for security reasons — and changed operations so that both the operators and other teams don’t intermingle. A second break room was created for the same isolation purposes.

“Their work on site will be dramatically different” with all the changes, Corrigan said of plant workers. 

The 23 plant operators who at some point lived at work appreciated the quiet trailers at the end of long days, Corrigan said.

But it wasn’t exactly like a family camping trip at nearby Walnut Woods State Park. “After the two weeks, they were ready to get out of there. It was exhausting. It was trying. They were ready to see other faces and to see their families,” he added. 

Water Works is still tallying up costs for the trailers, food, and overtime pay. It plans to ask the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay at least part of the tab. Corrigan said the first two weeks alone cost $300,000 but the cost had dropped to around $50,000 per two weeks recently as more and more trailers were removed and workers returned to the plants and remote facilities.