If you walk into the City of Santa Cruz Wastewater Treatment Plant it won’t take long to run into someone from the Locatelli family. Forrest, his brother Al and their cousin John are all members of the maintenance team and their first cousin James is a lead worker on a sewer line maintenance crew. The family never planned to come together inside the wastewater profession – it’s a bit of a coincidence and a reflection of economic changes in this beautiful seaside city.
For several decades Forrest and Al worked in some of Santa Cruz’s largest industrial facilities, including in the sprout packaging, canneries and at the Wrigley chewing gum factory, but as those factories packed up and left, the Locatellis looked for a career that was more stable. They worked on farms, before stumbling across job openings for a mechanic at the wastewater treatment plant.
“I saw the City was looking for a mechanic in 1996 when they were building the secondary treatment system,” Al said. “Lots of people were applying. I think what made the difference for me is my experience – I started out in the high school shop class and built my skills through decades of maintenance work.”
His brother Forrest and cousin John followed Al and joined the city a few years later. There’s something special about the work performed by the Santa Cruz maintenance team – most of the work is done in-house, including extensive rebuilds of machinery, digesters and upgrading equipment to be more efficient. The team takes great pride in their work and makes sure they build quality and reliability into each project. You can see the pride they take in their work as you walk around the facility.
They’ve been featured in wastewater magazines including a recent profile in Treatment Plant Operator. Coworkers praise the Locatellis for their skill and dedication.
We interviewed brothers Al and Forrest and their cousin James on a bright, beautiful day in Santa Cruz as we toured the plant looking at some of their handy work.
One of their goals is to replace the corroding steel pipelines in the plant with stainless steel pipe that will last longer. Forrest is the expert fabricator and his stainless steel welds sparkle like diamonds in the sunlight as we walk around. Hundreds of shiny welds in thousands of feet of pipe were laid out throughout the plant.
Q: What experiences helped make you a great wastewater mechanic?
AL: From high school I started learning the maintenance trade, starting out in the metal shop and auto shop, electronics and wood shop. Then I switched to working on farm equipment and picked up more skills there. Having a shop class in high school is where it all starts. You know, they’re not offering those classes much anymore.
At one time there used to be a lot of industry right here in Santa Cruz – and I worked for several of them – Santa Cruz Sprouts Growers and Artichoke Association, Cannery Pacific Coast and Wrigley. I received my mechanical background working for those companies.
FORREST: I started working on the farm when I was 10 years old – it was dirty work, it was grunt work but I learned a lot. I also had shop class in both junior-high and high school. We’d take any class we could – metal shop, wood shop, auto shop. I have about 29 years of experience working in a farm equipment repair workshop – working on Brussel sprout harvesters, tractors, many irrigation booster pumps and other machinery.
JOHN: I ran my own Apple Farm in Corralitos. I had to maintain all my equipment like tractors, spray rigs, trucks, etc. I have been here over 5 years and learned so much in regards to wastewater treatment equipment. I also learned quite a bit about fabrication including welding and plumping. I’ve also gained experience with Cogeneration equipment maintenance. I had some computer background so it helped with using our CMMS.
Q: What brought you into the wastewater profession?
AL: As the industrial companies all moved out I started looking around and saw the posting for a mechanic at the wastewater treatment plant. I wanted something located here in Santa Cruz. Our family came into the Boulder Creek area in the 1890s, so we’re the fourth generation. It was important for me to keep my family here.
JAMES: I joined the City in 1994. I was working in the construction trade and had some skills in plumbing and electrical work that helped me fit in right away.
Q: What’s the best part about working in the wastewater profession?
FORREST: We get a lot of freedom to work on projects and something is always coming into the shop. We do a lot of work – pumps, digesters, clarifiers, generators – and we like to do the work ourselves. We seem to get a better looking system when we do it ourselves. We can really spend some time with the system and get into the nitty-gritty of how it works and how to rebuild it so it’s reliable.
AL: We take pride in the work we do, that’s how we were raised.
FORREST: I like fabricating things. When something goes down we tear it out and we think about it. We all talk about it on the maintenance and electrical team before we start putting things back together and before we start creating the “artwork.”
That works out well. We take pride when we do something. We take projects step-by-step so it looks good and is done right the first time.
AL: Forrest is the fabricating guy. I’m the systems guy – I do the fine-tuning of the gauges and pressure systems.
JAMES: I enjoy working in the field and the customer service aspect of our job. It’s a small community so I run into people I know all the time when we’re out on a call. We’re out there to help them. The Locatelli family has been here 100 years, so it feels good to give back to the community and help people.
Q: How is the profession changing?
AL: We’re seeing changes. More projects involve the SCADA system [supervisory control and data acquisition], so we’re bringing in the plant electrician on projects more often.
FORREST: Al has to keep the cogeneration Waukesha engines in operation or the plant faces a $9,000 peak electrical charge. [editor’s note: like many California resource recovery facilities the engines at Santa Cruz burn biogas from the digesters in order to generate electricity to run the plant]. We had problems with inconsistent gas from the natural gas mixing with digesters gas, so we did an upgrade with the gas system and added a dilution blender to stay running at 820 KW day and night. The dilution blender mixes air with natural gas to keep the blend consistent with a steady BTU.
JAMES: The trend is definitely towards more technology. I like to say we need more brain than brawn. We use laptops to run a diagnosis on systems and keep track of our work. Even more tech is in our future.
Q: What does the future of the wastewater profession look like to you?
JAMES: The younger generation of workers catches on a lot quicker. They have more computer skills and experience with technology. My generation came out of the trades so we had more experience in plumbing and electrical work. We have to do more training for new workers on those skills.
FORREST: We’re all getting to a certain age where we’re going to lose people pretty quick.
AL: In 10 years there’s going to be an entirely new maintenance crew. We’ll all be retired. It’s going to be tough. The younger generation wants to stay on the computer and keep clean.
JAMES: At one time Santa Cruz had a lot more industrial companies and scores of workers, but they’re all gone. Forrest and Al are the last of them. Folks at this plant are really grateful to have their expertise here.
But there’s going to be a day when they’re exiting. That’s when it’s going to be tough to find new people with their skills.
Our profession needs more great maintenance mechanics like Al, Forrest and John. Do you know a great mechanic working outside our sector? Please encourage them to join our profession! They can check out CAWaterJobs.org.