Water Hero Finalist | Paul Dombrowski

Water Hero Finalist: Paul Dombrowski

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 this summer 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!

Here, we introduce Water Hero Finalist #4. Meet Paul Dombrowski!

Paul has been with Woodard & Curran for 16 years, helping many wastewater professionals and facilities along the way.

About Paul: Paul is the Chief Technologist, Municipal Wastewater for Woodard & Curran, a consulting firm specializing in water and environmental projects. Paul is involved with many wastewater treatment-oriented projects—including their design, startup, optimizations, and troubleshooting.

While Paul has worked in various ways to advance the wastewater industry, he was nominated as a Water Hero specifically for his passion for training operators. Paul conducts training sessions—as part of his job and on his own time—that reach hundreds of wastewater operators each year. He incorporates multiple hands-on programs to provide practical knowledge via process simulators, settling column testing, and nutrient testing equipment. In fact, Paul has significantly advanced the use of process simulators for operator training!

Paul provides training for regional organizations such as NEIWPCC (New England), CWEA, NYWEA, and PWEA. At the national level, he hosts workshops at large conferences such as WEFTEC and WEFMAX events. Paul is heavily involved in WEFTEC’s Operations Challenge, serving as the leader for the Process Control Event.

Paul is the Process Control Event coordinator for WEFTEC’s Operations Challenge. Participants must demonstrate—in a variety of ways—how well they’ve mastered the skills required of a wastewater operator. Photo by Michael Spring.

These are just some of the things Paul has done to make waves in the wastewater industry. Learn more about him by checking out our interview below!

Q: What about your role in the wastewater industry is the most exciting to you?

Paul: I’m passionate about building a bridge between engineers—and what we do on the process side—and operators—and what they do to accomplish their goals of efficient but effective high-quality treatment to protect our waterways and communities. A key way to link engineers and operators is through operator training, so that’s what I spend a lot of my time doing.

Operators tend to be very blue-collar-oriented. I try to bring their understanding to a higher level than what they’re used to seeing or hearing. My training sessions are more than just telling them they need to do X, Y, and Z to accomplish their job—they are pushed to understand why they’re doing it and the fundamentals of how it works.

Paul spends a lot of his time training wastewater operators. In this photo, he discusses clarifier testing with operators in Portland, Maine. Photo by Leeann Hansen of JETCC.

Q: How does your involvement in WEFTEC’s Operations Challenge fit into your goal of training operators?

Paul: I started doing Operations Challenge on the New England level in 2011 and at the national (WEF) level since 2015. Now I’m the Process Control Event coordinator for WEFTEC’s Operations Challenge. Organizers of these events—myself included—were looking for a way to elevate them to make them a little more challenging. We’ve always tried to push folks to bring out the best in the operations community. But at the same time, how do we bring real-world scenarios to test their knowledge and their skills?

Through these efforts, we helped develop one of the best training tools I’ve ever used, a simulator that’s like a wastewater treatment video game. I use that for training a lot, and it’s really effective at helping to convey fundamental principles to operators by having them run their own plant in a virtual world.

Operators can try different operating scenarios in their treatment plants, such as, “I’m changing this parameter. What does it do to my operating cost, my chemical cost, energy usage, and my effluent quality?” Not only do we use this for the Operations Challenge events, but I also use it for many training sessions and workshops. The company that builds these, Hatch (formerly Hydromantis), has even made specific layouts for individual plants across the world really, but predominantly in North America.

Paul uses SimuWorks, a software program that is essentially a wastewater treatment video game, to teach fundamental principles to operators.

Q: Technology development has played a big role in the type of training you can now provide. Can you speak to how technology has changed in the wastewater industry over the last 20 years?

Paul: It’s changed in many ways! So, I focus more on what operators are doing. I help with setting up and optimizing SCADA systems—the supervisory control, data acquisition aspects of facilities where they have sensors. It goes to a control system allowing real-time adjustments to help the plant perform as intended. Actions such as adding chemicals, changing flow rates of different pumps, things like that that would allow those things to be optimized. The treatment technology, controllers, sensors, and how they’re integrated continue to improve, resulting in better ways of process control!

For example, I’m involved in a collaborative Water Research Foundation project with Northeastern University, the University of Massachusetts, Hatch, and others. We’re evaluating sensors and control systems for nutrient removal. We have utility partners across the country providing their data and insights to understand what works for them.

At Woodard & Curran, we’re focusing on how to build more forward-looking programs. We’re looking at data analysis and machine learning, trying to understand what’s going on at plants to predict what you would do now and in the near term to change operational points, improve performance, save money, and make the operator’s job easier.

 An important part of Paul’s position is to educate people in the wastewater industry about new technologies. Here he is giving a presentation on phosphorus removal. Photo by Paul Dombrowski.

Q: You have been involved in so many areas of the wastewater industry. What’s the most rewarding part of your job?

Paul: The most rewarding part is helping people improve and advance their lives and careers. I’ve enjoyed helping young people learn, grow, and find success. And it’s probably more pronounced in the operations field because often those folks don’t have the appropriate self-opinion of themselves or confidence they can do things. It’s so great to hear them say, “Hey, I didn’t think I could do that math. I didn’t think I would understand the process that way.” I love to see those lights come on because those people are so capable—they just don’t always have the same level of confidence because of their background. When they take a leap, it’s the most rewarding part of what I do by a mile.

Q: When did you decide the wastewater industry was for you? What does your pathway to the industry look like?  

Paul: When I was a kid, I always wanted to be Jacques Cousteau, the famous oceanographer. I mean, I would watch everything I could about him, and I would read everything he wrote. I wanted to save the oceans and rivers. I thought I’d be a marine biologist. Once I started to go down that path, I was exposed to environmental engineering. And I’m like, “Wow, I can understand what’s going on in that environment, but I can do things that can have a tangible change in that environment by improving what we as humans put back into our rivers and oceans.” So that’s why I earned my degrees in environmental engineering.

I’m from a very blue-collar family, so when I started working with operators of wastewater plants, I was always trying to work with them. Engineers do different things than operators, and I think there is a big benefit to understanding what each type of position does—to advance our understanding of the industry alongside one another.

I really got into training relatively early in my career. In the first six or eight years after getting into consulting—as a consulting engineer—you work with folks at plants. I always was like, “How do I help explain to them what we’re trying to do to their facility?”

Paul knew the environmental engineering field was for him early in his college career. Today, he serves as a mentor for future engineers. Here he speaks with undergraduate environmental engineering students from the University of Hartford (Conn.) at a water resource recovery facility in Chicopee, Mass. Photo by Susan Guswa of Woodard & Curran.

Q: Coming back to today, what environmental issues are you the most concerned about? 

Paul: For starters, the graying of our industry, particularly in the operations field, and the challenge of having enough qualified people to manage our utilities. So, how do we excite the next generation of operators to bring them forward? I think we lose institutional knowledge as the older folks retire. As an industry, we don’t always do the best job documenting what we do and why we do it. So, what do we do to bring those folks along—attract them to the field, help them advance, and be successful? Those are all big parts of what I try to focus on through training and involvement in things like the Operations Challenge.

I’m concerned with manufactured chemicals like PFAS (polyfluoroalkyl substances), things that are much more problematic than we originally thought. How do we deal with those? Also, climate change is a concern. Wastewater plants are almost always located in the lowest part of town, next to a river or the ocean. So, they’re most vulnerable to climate change. If critical infrastructure like treatment facilities don’t work due to a sudden climate event, now you have a tremendous impact on our societies and cities. If you need to replace them, considerable capital investment would be required, which is likely not financially viable for a community. 

Q: In light of those challenges, how bright do you think the future is for the wastewater industry? 

Paul: I think a lot of great things are being developed from a technological point of view, and a lot of young people are entering the industry with passion and capability. But there are gaps we need to continue to push to fill.

No matter what, it will take investment to ensure a bright future for the industry. We made a lot of investments decades ago—in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s—in response to the Clean Water Act to build plants and make improvements. But those facilities are 30, 40, 50 years old. And some communities have done a pretty good job keeping things up; some haven’t. With the recent infrastructure bill and the things we’ve seen in some of the recent congressional and federal action, there appears to be a commitment—at least right now on that level—to do things that will help the industry, our country, and the planet. We just can’t take our foot off the pedal!

Despite the wastewater industry’s challenges, Paul is optimistic about its future. One reason is the young people entering the industry today have passion and the capability to learn. Photo by Bill Patenaude of RIDEM.

Q: It will take water heroes to overcome many of the water issues we’ve talked about. If you were selected as the winner of our CWA Water Heroes contest, what would you do with the grand prize?

Paul: Well, over the last 10 or 15 years, I’ve trained many operators and young engineers. During that time, it’s been a real focus of mine to have as much hands-on training as possible. If I won this contest and received IQ SensorNet instrumentation, I would add it to the repertoire of things I use for training. I want to get those instruments in the hands of my students so we can better train our future wastewater operators and leaders!


Check out the other Clean Water Act Water Hero finalists - Matt Norberg, Harry Stone, and Brooke Klingbeil.

1 Responses to this article

Congrats, Paul! :)

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