Water Hero Finalist | Brooke Klingbeil

Water Hero Finalist: Brooke Klingbeil

The Clean Water Act (CWA) is one of the most impactful pieces of environmental legislation in U.S. history. YSI has celebrated the CWA’s 50th anniversary in 2022 by bringing awareness to what the law has accomplished and to some of the great things water quality advocates have done.

As part of our CWA Water Heroes contest in 2022, we asked for help identifying environmental leaders studying our world, educating others, and driving change. We determined the top four finalists (U.S. only) in the summer, and the general public voted for their favorite Water Hero in early October. On October 18th, 2022—the 50th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act—we announced Brooke Klingbeil as the Grand Prize Winner!

Brooke was Water Hero Finalist #3. See why she won the contest by learning more about her below!

Brooke Klingbeil has been with the City of Medford, Wisconsin, for over 9 years. She is on track to be a future leader in the industry—even beyond her region and state—because she cares deeply about wastewater treatment and the environment.

About Brooke: Brooke is a certified Advanced Wastewater Operator, and the Laboratory Director, at the Wastewater Treatment Facility (WTF) in Medford, Wisconsin. The heart of rural Taylor County, Medford is home to 4,500 residents, joined most workdays by another ~4,500 commuters from the surrounding areas. Brooke serves this community, and her profession, with humility that should not be mistaken for a lack of passion.

Because indeed, she is passionate about both her city and wastewater treatment. Brooke is a lifelong resident of Taylor County, where she and her husband are raising two young boys. In addition to motherhood and career, she has returned to college, taking online courses towards a degree in Environmental Policy & Planning from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. She hopes the degree—coupled with her on-the-ground experience—will help her even further improve and influence water treatment practices and outcomes.

Professionally, Brooke is dedicated to collaboration and education for wastewater operators—including herself! Primarily on-the-job educated, Brooke takes every opportunity to learn as much as she can from her senior colleagues. She also builds bridges between plants and regulators, educating both sides on the practical, everyday nuances of wastewater testing and analyses.

In her nomination, an industry colleague said that Brooke has mastered both wastewater and drinking water testing, turning her lab into a platform to “constantly improve and innovate, while at the same time supporting the Wisconsin DNR [Department of Natural Resources] and other WWTP labs by sharing her work.” For example, she has led the way in developing best practices and testing methods for nitrates in drinking water and has onboarded E. coli tests rather than the more general coliform tests, a first in her region. Others, including the DNR, are now following her lead with these methods.

The person who nominated her is not the only one to have taken notice: Brooke received the 2021 Northwest Region Operator of the Year Award from the Wisconsin Wastewater Operators Association. More recently, she won the Water Environment Federation 2022 Laboratory Excellence award.

Brooke has won numerous awards in the wastewater industry, including the Water Environment Federation 2022 Laboratory Excellence award.

Less than 10 years into her career as a wastewater professional, the following revealed not only why Brooke was so deserving of those awards, but also that the future of the CWA is in good hands.

Q: Brooke, tell us how you came to be in the role you are in today.

Brooke: I came into the wastewater treatment industry in a very unconventional way. Growing up on a farm about 18 miles from Medford, all I ever wanted to do was have my own farm or manage an even bigger one. 

So, I got an associate’s degree in animal science, and I fairly quickly became a young stock manager for a 1300-head dairy farm. I furthered my career in agriculture with a cooperative as a reproductive specialist. After two years of breeding cows, getting engaged, and only having three days off a month, that wasn’t working anymore.

The cooperative had a commercial laboratory that tested food, milk, and water samples, and my manager helped me secure a position there. It was a longer commute, but I worked for 9 months in the drinking water and wastewater lab and learned a lot.

One day, I looked at our local weekly newspaper, The Star News, and noticed an ad for a laboratory technician and treatment plant operator here at the Medford treatment plant. I applied for it, and I’ve worked here for over nine years now.

Brooke never imagined herself working at a wastewater facility. She earned a degree in animal science, worked on a farm, and then in a commercial lab that tested milk and water. This ultimately opened the door for her to work in the wastewater industry.

Q: So, in that time, you’ve become a Certified Advanced Operator? What does that mean?

Brooke: Previously, Wisconsin had a system where the highest certification you could receive was a Grade IV. A few years into my tenure here, I was on the cusp of becoming a Grade III operator, but the state changed the requirements to obtain a higher level, Advanced Certification. [Read more about Wisconsin DNR’s operator certification program, which has operator-in-training, basic, and advanced levels.]

To get an advanced certification, you need a combination of either college education and years of experience or approved coursework, up to 10 credits. You are also required to have 24 continuing education hours every two years.

In this profession, though, you have the opportunity to learn everything on the job and learn from everyone else around you, so that’s what I did.

I’m now enrolled at UW-Green Bay and working towards my bachelor’s degree in Environmental Policy & Planning. Going back to school has been challenging—it has been 10 years since I was in school, and I have many more responsibilities outside of work, including taking care of my two children and being a supportive wife to my husband’s fourth-generation family-owned business. And while I don’t need a bachelor’s degree for my position at the treatment plant, it will be of great value to the City of Medford, and I’m confident it will open opportunities for me in the future.

Between her job responsibilities in Medford, the various organizations she’s involved with, the trainings she leads, going to school, and raising a family, Brooke stays busy!

Q: You are very active in the wastewater community. What organizations are you involved with?

Brooke: There are several, but one I should mention is the WWOA—the Wisconsin Wastewater Operators Association. I’m a member of that, and I recently became the Vice Chair for our Northwest Regional Committee.

I was really looking forward to being involved in this committee because North Central Wisconsin members—like our Medford team—have a tough time traveling to training opportunities because cities that host these events can be a long commute for some. This is challenging for rural municipalities like ours operating with a one to three-people crew. Thankfully our regional committee hosts quarterly meetings, and we do our best to include seven to eight continuing education credits during our time together.

Besides helping to coordinate these training events, I’ve loved being a part of this community and bringing fresh energy to the team.

Brooke is the Vice Chair of the Northwest Regional Committee of the Wisconsin Wastewater Operators Association. Among many activities, this committee is working towards providing training opportunities that are more centralized within their region.

Q: You won the 2021 Northwest Region Operator of the Year Award from WWOA. Was that for your efforts in planning training or something else you’ve done in the industry?

Brooke: Several people recommended me for the award, primarily because of my collaboration with the Wisconsin DNR. I’ve been working with their lab certification department to help other municipalities receive training, especially with recent changes, like switching from fecal coliform to E. coli for our wastewater testing. There were many labs that were unfamiliar with how to run the new tests and understand the new methods available to us.

I actually had a friend of mine—Joel Langdon and his company, That Photography Guy LLC—help me make some training videos. I also put together some slideshows and did technical presentations at different shows and conferences. That’s probably a big reason I was nominated.

 

Brooke won the 2021 Northwest Region Operator of the Year Award from WWOA due to her collaboration with the Wisconsin DNR to help other municipalities. She is seen throughout the state as a wastewater lab expert!

Q: Speaking of E. coli and coliforms, what are some of the biggest issues in wastewater and wastewater treatment?

Brooke: Ineffective treatment. When it comes to E. coli and fecal coliform in your effluent, ineffective treatment can lead to compliance issues.

There are a lot of different things that can negatively impact the treatment process. For example, sidestreams from industrial processes, hauled-in high organic loads, turbidity in your effluent can result in less efficient UV disinfection, and diurnal flows. Also, managing large rainfall events can cause issues for operators as it decreases the detention time.

While I spend a lot of time in the lab, I’m also an operator, and I like to ensure lab analysts understand what’s going on prior to them receiving that sample. So, I’m an advocate for explaining the process before it gets to the lab.

 

Brooke has an excellent understanding of lab methods and the treatment process. When conducting training for lab personnel, she finds it beneficial to provide an overview of what is going on in the process before it reaches the laboratory.

Q: You mentioned earlier that you partnered with the Wisconsin DNR to train other municipalities. Since the DNR is the agency issuing wastewater discharge permits in the state, what is the relationship typically like between facilities and regulators?

Brooke: It’s not easy to challenge the status quo at a facility, but I try to bridge the gap between regulators and operators.  

I try to translate the DNR’s requirements into a language that people can understand better. For example, when it comes to drinking water bacteria and nitrate, E. coli, or fecal-coliform testing, whenever the DNR receives calls from superintendents who have questions about the procedures or hope to perform the testing in-house, the DNR says, “Call Brooke.” This is because they’ve worked with me to develop SOPs from the ground up. I don’t want anyone to have to reinvent the wheel!

Q: You do a lot for Medford and the wastewater industry. What keeps you motivated?

Brooke: This industry is filled with great, passionate people who aren’t doing it for any kind of recognition. I simply love my job, this industry, and the people in it. The opportunities are really endless, and I genuinely enjoy learning—and helping others learn—something new every day.

Another thing that motivates me is that I like using the water bodies around Wisconsin. I’m an avid ice fisherwoman, and I love to vacation. The environmental issue most concerning to me is the protection of the Great Lakes—it’s one of my most treasured places to go and appreciate.

Brooke is an avid ice fisherwoman, which is just one of the reasons why she has a passion for protecting water resources through proper wastewater treatment.

Q: It will take water heroes like you to overcome the environmental challenges we face. What does it mean to you to be nominated as a water hero?

Brooke: I feel so humbled! I’m just doing my job, but I appreciate that it’s been acknowledged and recognized. I do want to mention it’s not just me at the Medford treatment plant. Also, our team works collaboratively with other utilities. This is really a nomination for our entire team and community. It takes people working together to overcome the challenges we all face!


Check out the other Clean Water Act Water Hero finalists - Matt Norberg, Harry Stone, and Paul Dombrowski

 

8 Responses to this article

Good job Brooke - Keep protecting our Wisconsin waters!!!

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Awesome job, Brooke. You represent all the good about the people of our state and the bright future.

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Great Job Brooke

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Great work Brooke! Your a passionate person both on a family and work level.

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Great job Brooke!!!!!!!

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Brooke is a beautiful person inside and out. She excels as a mother and no doubt does the same in the water industry. Beyond proud of you, Brooke!

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So proud of you Brooke. Keep up the Great Work👍

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Congrats, Brooke! :)

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