Our Big Challenge – Encourage the Next Generation of Wastewater Workers

Tony Mendes believes state and national trade associations must follow new technologies to help the environment and enhance professionalism
Our Big Challenge – Encourage the Next Generation of Wastewater Workers
Tony Mendes

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In States Snapshot, we visit with a member of a state, provincial or national trade association in the decentralized wastewater industry. This time, we learn about a member of the Nebraska Onsite Waste Water Association.

Name and title: Tony Mendes, owner (semiretired)

Business: Tony Mendes Excavating, Scottsbluff, Nebraska (sold business to stepson, and now operating under Larry Kessler Construction)

Age: 68

Years in the industry: 25

Association involvement:

  • Nebraska Onsite Waste Water Association (NOWWA) — founding board member, past president, current board member and education coordinator
  • Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality Onsite Wastewater Advisory Committee — appointed member
  • National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association (NOWRA) board member
  • Member of National Association of Wastewater Technicians (NAWT) education committee

Benefits of belonging to the association:

Education opportunities; having a voice in influencing regulations and changes within the state and the industry; fellowship; and the opportunity to share experiences, gripe, and (at some point) realize that many of us in the industry share the same problems and experiences, and utilize these experiences in solving some of our common work issues.
Biggest issue facing your association right now:

Membership — maintaining and growing the membership as well as getting and developing the next (younger) generation of professionals within the industry.
More on the NOWWA crew:

Nebraska is a geographically large state with a relatively small population. The active leadership of the organization is voluntary and has been historically filled by a great group of committed individuals. But, we decided at its inception that NOWWA would require professional management, not just to get through the day-to-day aspects of the organization, but also to guide us through the maze of reporting, regulations and bureaucracy along with the day-to-day business functions. We were extremely fortunate in having been able to draw upon the experience of Lee Orton and his management group from day one. Through their input and leadership, we have been able to develop a very professional industry organization, conduct training across the state (along with our University of Nebraska and Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality partners), present a very successful annual three-day conference (along with our Nebraska Well Drillers Association partners), be involved in the legislative issues within the state, and have input into the direction our industry is taking. Jason Orton, Cindy Kreifels and Diane Snapp (now retired) have shouldered the burden of keeping our association on track and helping us refocus when we wanted to stray off course. At times, it was probably like herding cats.

Typical day on the job:

Most of my time is now spent in front of a computer or a windshield. Even though I am semiretired, I still get up early, get to my desk and sort through and respond to correspondence, work on training and education details, and participate in numerous individual and conference calls pertaining to my various industry involvements. When not at home, I spend a considerable amount of time driving to and from various state activities and meetings. And in a state that is about 450 miles across, with us living in the far western part of the state and most of our population and activity occurring in the far eastern part of the state, drive time can be considerable.

The job I’ll never forget:

A septic system replacement at Scotts Bluff National Monument, our local historic site and national monument. The installation of the new system was fairly straightforward. The problem arose when I realized I didn’t have nearly large enough equipment to remove the old concrete septic tanks. As I was still a one-man shop and this was my first government bid project, I was getting very worried that I had taken on more than I could handle, both physically and financially. Fortunately, having a great working relationship with our local Caterpillar dealership, Nebraska Machinery Company (NMC), I was able to get a large excavator and jackhammer on site without breaking the bank. The job was completed without any other setbacks.

My favorite piece of equipment:

When I was actively installing, our Caterpillar backhoes. Being a small one- or two-person operation meant trying to keep capital investment to a minimum. We could generally do anything we needed to do with that equipment. Today, I would have to say my computer and smartphone. The ability to react to problems and opportunities as well as develop and share information has probably changed how most of us are doing business.

Most challenging site I’ve worked on:

The “next one” — it seems that no matter how much planning and preparation would go into a proposal, each project presents its own unique set of problems to solve.

The craziest question I’ve been asked by a customer:

“You mean I was supposed to look at all of that information you gave us?” Although not that crazy, it seems to be a recurring theme. This had generally been preceded by the comment: “Yeah, I know my system is 10 years old, but you mean I needed to have it pumped?” Historically, with our bill for services, we have religiously provided site drawings and technical information along with an explanation regarding their installed system. Having been around long enough to experience follow-up calls on many of these systems proves the old adage about leading a horse to water. As an industry, we need to expand the efforts to get information to the homeowner/consumer.

If I could change one industry regulation, it would be:

Not one thing but two. First, remove the term “flushable” from all wipes and products with the potential of being put down the drain. Having owned a septic pumping business for several years, we have been able to experience firsthand the damage and problems these products can create.

Second, I don’t think it would be a specific regulation because regs are in constant flux as technologies and equipment change and we are constantly playing catch-up, but I would find a way for the regulatory groups to be adequately staffed, trained and financed so that the level of active enforcement increases throughout the industry. It seems to be a common problem nationally that — even when regulations are implemented — without an adequate enforcement effort, the new regs are ignored. They end up putting the compliance operators at a competitive disadvantage; customers are being misled, and environmental problems are continuing. I think you see the results in jurisdictions that have well-established, effective enforcement involvement where there is a mutual respect for the regulatory group and the on-site professional.

Best piece of small business advice I’ve heard:

From a supervisor I had many years ago in the corporate world: he said that whenever you are having a discussion or are in a meeting, try to talk and listen in equal parts. It makes no difference if this is a sales talk, problem-solving or teaching. Don’t lose sight of other individuals’ input, questions or opinions. Although I was told this nearly 50 years ago, it seems that this may be an appropriate message for today.

If I wasn’t working in the wastewater industry, I would:

Probably be rich! Just kidding. The business has been good to us, and we enjoy trying to give back. I have always enjoyed designing and building things, so I would probably still be contracting and building or doing some type of residential design work.

This is my outlook for the wastewater industry:

Advances in technology will allow us to gain a better understanding of the hows and whys of system performance so we can train both professionals and consumers in the appropriate operation and service of new and existing septic systems. Advances in technology will open us up to better systems and equipment to help us solve current and future environmental problems. They will also give us the ability to be more efficient in our business operation and, hopefully, more profitable.


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