This series about SoCal collection system leaders is sponsored by Plumbers Depot.
Robert Swartz, P.E.
Senior Civil Engineer
Sewer Maintenance Division
Consolidated Sewer Maintenance District
Los Angeles County Department of Public Works
“As a wastewater engineer this career is good for engineers who don’t want to sit behind a desk all day. Get involved, learn the processes, build relationships, collect experience, and get your hands dirty.”
What are your responsibilities?
I oversee 4,600 miles of collections system sewers with a staff of about 120 employees. That includes engineering and administrative staff, plus four regional sewer maintenance superintendents. Engineering staff supports our Condition Assessment and Capital Outlay program for repairs and rehabilitation. Administrative supports regulatory compliance and reporting.
My responsibilities encompass many factors such as facility maintenance; fixed asset management; budgets; performance evaluation; personnel issues; material requisition; planning; claims; safety; training; research; investigations; quality control; customer service; communications; software programs; emergency response; etc.
Our team members really operate as a jack of all trades so we’re all involved in various aspects of District operations with individual responsibilities overlapping. It truly is a team effort.
How did you get to where you are today?
I went to San Diego State University, at first I was an economics major but had a friend in the aerospace engineering school who got me interested in engineering and started taking aerospace classes. Shortly after the aerospace industry tanked, so I talked with the Dean of Civil Engineering about joining that program and I got in. That led me to a degree in civil engineering.
After college I did several job interviews and chose LA County Department of Public Works because it seemed like it would be an interesting career and the chance to work with the largest County in the nation.
I started in a Design unit working on Flood Control projects, progressed into consultant designed projects, then served 17 years in Construction contracts working various roles as contract liaison, project inspector, area supervisor, and unit head for construction inspection. I was fortunate enough to be involved in projects from concept to completion over a wide range of jobs which gave me a better understanding and appreciation for what happens from beginning to end.
I gained a tremendous amount of experience and know how projects work within the Department’s process from concept to completion. Having and sharing this working knowledge with others helps prevent wasted time and effort.
A promotion landed me in the sewer maintenance division. I’ve spent 8 years here and enjoy it – I have a lot of freedom to work on projects. I like to see how the machinery works and I’m always looking for ways we can do it safer, better, faster or cheaper.
My job is something that has evolved over the years, it keeps me going. I love what I do.
How did you advance to supervisor so quickly?
Administration had confidence in me and I was offered the position, it was that simple. I looked at it as an adventure – what’s around that next corner? I like to step up to a challenge.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
I think just being successful day-to-day running a large sewer system is an achievement. There are new challenges everyday, there are emergencies that come up.
I also like to develop new tools and new techniques – I like tinkering with things, working on all of these new inventions. For example, I developed a unique new method for vermin control. We do a lot of dusting for roach control, so when we come across roaches while inspecting or cleaning sewers we don’t want to wait or call out a separate crew and truck. Why don’t we have everything the crew needs to get the job done right then and there. Something we can put on the trucks. I asked one of the equipment maintenance workers if we could use a dry chemical fire extinguisher to apply the dust. We experimented with an expired extinguisher and the results were great.
Now we use them as-needed to treat manholes for roach infestation. It’s easy to carry, easy to use and can treat about 15 manholes before it needs to be refilled.
Best part of your job?
The people. I enjoy the day-to-day operational challenges but it’s really the people who make this a great place to work. I work with some really good people. Sewer maintenance operations is a team effort.
I spend a lot of time with the field superintendents understanding their issues better so I can provide the tools, materials, and support they need to get the job done.
If you’re not hands-on in this role imagine what kind of results you’re going to get. Not good. I want to see the system, the tools, understand how they work. If we’re going to spend a half-million dollars on a new combo sewer truck I want to be confident we’re getting the right equipment for the team so they can be effective and efficient.
To do the job right you have to get involved at every level to understand what’s happening. What does my team face every day, what are their challenges? I want to be there when they encounter challenging easements, I want to see the debris they pull out of the sewers and so on.
What do you recommend to younger engineers who want to move up in the water sector?
As a water or wastewater engineer this career is good for engineers who don’t want to sit behind a desk all day. Get involved, learn the processes, build relationships, collect experience, and get your hands dirty.
After you graduate and get your license don’t stop there. Learn about the people, learn how the system operates. Never stop learning. Being an engineer is a lifelong education.
There’s book smart and then there’s application smart. It’s tempting to say this is what the book says to do, but when you’re out in the field you’ll see the real-world application, so make it work. Get in there and put the pieces together, get down in that trench and make it work. Get out in the field – see how engineering principles are applied all the way down to the laborers level.
Don’t think of sewers as dirty – they’re an essential part of life. Having a well maintained wastewater system is fundamental to a healthy and prosperous developed society.