Skip to main content
Workforce LibreTexts

1.7: Water Treatment Facilities and Operations

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    Water treatment is one of the most critical steps in the drinking water process. It is critical to remove unwanted particles, inactivate harmful organisms, and treat to a level that complies with the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). Most water treated within drinking water treatment plants comes from surface supply sources. As snow melts and rainfall moves along the ground surface into rivers, streams, and lakes, particles are picked up along the way. Therefore, ALL surface water to be used for domestic drinking water purposes must be treated. Surface water is also more susceptible to contamination because much of this contamination comes from “runoff”. Every time it rains or as snow melts, water is washed down from mountains, hillsides, roads, and other areas, picking up anything along the way. For example, imagine a farm next to a stream that feeds a local lake used as a drinking water storage reservoir. There is a potential for animal waste among other things making its way to the storage reservoir. Just the sediment from a lake’s hillside and the natural organic matter in a lake makes the water not suitable for drinking. Therefore, there are regulations within the Safe Drinking Water Act called Surface Water Treatment Rule (SWTR), which specifically addresses surface water treatment requirements. There have been several iterations of this rule to improve the quality of drinking water. The SWTR is crafted to prevent waterborne diseases caused by microorganisms. The rule requires water systems to filter and disinfect water from surface water sources to reduce the occurrence of unsafe levels of disease causing microbes.

    One of the primary constituents the SWTR requires treatment and monitoring for is turbidity. Turbidity is the cloudiness or haziness seen in water samples and prevents the performance of filtration systems. Low turbidity requirements are used to protect against certain microbial contaminants, in particularly Cryptosporidium. Cryptosporidium is a protozoan that can cause gastrointestinal illness in humans, which is similar to many disease causing microorganisms. The lower the turbidity levels, the less likely there will be disease causing microorganisms. The SWTR also requires disinfection to protect against these pathogens. Disinfection chemicals, such as chlorine, are used to inactivate (kill) pathogens during the treatment process through a required residual present in the water throughout the distribution system.

    Surface waters also have to be treated for aesthetic qualities. An aesthetic quality doesn’t typically have an effect on public health. These types of qualities are usually related to the appearance and palatability of the water. Does the water taste good, look good, and smell good? Taste, odor, and color are three qualities surface water quality is treated to improve.

    Particles in Water

    Particles in water can be broken into three (3) general categories: suspended solids, colloidal compounds, and dissolved solids. Microorganisms fall under the colloidal compound category. One of the main goals of a surface water treatment plant is to prevent the outbreak of disease from microorganisms. These disease-causing agents are referred to as pathogens. The three main pathogen categories are distinguished as bacteria, virus, and protozoa. In drinking water quality, these organisms are not specifically analyzed in samples. Specific organisms, viruses, and protozoa can be very costly and require extensive sampling techniques. Some of the more common pathogens, which can be found in water, are:

    • Bacteria – Escherichia coli (E. coli) and Vibrio cholera
    • Viruses – Enterovirus and Coronavirus
    • Protozoa – Cryptosporidium parvum and Giardia lamblia

    Instead of analyzing for these organisms specifically, a class of organisms called total coliforms (TC) is used analyzed instead. TC is referred to collectively as indicator organisms. The presence or absence of TC bacteria indicates the presence or absence of pathogens. The analytical test is easy, inexpensive, and very effective. Microorganisms are one class of “particles” removed or inactivated from water. Microorganisms are difficult to remove from water, therefore they are usually destroyed or inactivated through the treatment process.

    In contrast to colloidal compounds, suspended solids are more easily removed. Much of the suspended material found in surface water supplies is referred to as turbidity. This turbidity comes from decaying plant material and soil as water runs across land and makes its way to streams and lakes. While suspended solids are not typically associated with disease, they can shield microorganisms from treatment processes and provide an overall poor quality to the water supply.

    Dissolved compounds are the most difficult to remove because they are dissolved in the water. Think about sugar or salt mixed in a glass of water. Once it dissolves and mixes in the water a treatment process is needed to remove it from the water. These treatment processes are more complex than the standard drinking water treatment plant. There are a variety of processes including things such as ion exchange, membrane filtration, chemical absorption, and others. If the dissolved compounds do not pose a health threat or if they are below their corresponding Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL), they are not typically treated for in the drinking water treatment process.


    Prior to entering a drinking water treatment plant, water is typically held in large storage reservoirs. These “reservoirs” (lakes) provide an area for large amounts of water to collect so the treatment plant has a constant source of supply. These reservoirs can also allow for some settling of solids and many double as a recreation space for fishing, boating, and water-skiing, etc.

    Entering the Treatment Plant

    As discussed in earlier chapters, surface water used for drinking is commonly stored in above ground lakes. These storage reservoirs are sometimes used for recreation such as fishing, boating, and water skiing. This recreational use is an important part of the economy and public use. However, they can add additional water quality problems for the water treatment plant. Water leaving these storage reservoirs needs to be free of large debris such as plants fish, trash, wood, etc. In order to take water from the storage reservoir and leave the larger debris behind there are “intake” structures. A surface water intake structure is a screened structure to let water through and keep larger items from entering the treatment plant. The screen size can vary depending on the use of the storage reservoir and the quality of the raw water. Raw water is the term used to identify water before treatment. The picture below shows an example.

    C:\Users\johnson_a\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Windows\Temporary Internet Files\Content.Outlook\MUCOC6NG\Water 020 Page 61 Filter (002).jpg
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): – Surface water intake structure.

    The water entering the intake structure can either be pumped or can flow by gravity to the treatment plant depending on the location of the plant compared to the storage reservoir. Valves can be used to adjust the flow into the plant and the water is sometimes kept in an onsite storage tank leading into the plant.

    Inside a Water Treatment Plant


    Once raw water enters a treatment plant there may be a pre-disinfection process. Some plants use a disinfectant to kill pathogens and other microorganisms prior to the water going through the treatment process. This can be done to prevent certain organisms from entering the plant and having an effect on the various treatment processes. Or it can be done to remove precursors, such as total organic carbon, to prevent disinfection by-products from forming. Newer treatment plants will use ozone as the disinfectant primarily because it is an effective oxidizer and it does not leave a residual in the water throughout the treatment process.

    Ozone is a trivalent form of oxygen. Simply put it is a compound of three (3) oxygen molecules (O3). If you have ever smelled an electrical spark or a lightning strike, chances are it is ozone that you smelled. It must be used at the point of generation. Unlike chlorine, which can be processed at a chemical plant (for example), a treatment plant using ozone must generate it on site. Ozone has a number of benefits over chlorine.

    Ozone Compared to Chlorine

    1. Stronger disinfectant
    2. Does not contribute to disinfection by-products
    3. Kills a wider range of organisms
    4. Achieves removal of unwanted tastes and odors
    5. Reactions are more rapid

    However, as mentioned previously, ozone does not leave a disinfectant residual in the water. This might be a good thing for a treatment plant, but ozone is not used in distribution systems because a residual is needed.

    Conventional Treatment vs. Direct Filtration

    There are two main types of drinking water treatment plants. There are conventional treatment plants and direct filtration plants. Each has benefits and drawbacks. All of which will be discussed in this text. It is important to remember that this text is an introductory text for a very general overview of the waterworks industry. Therefore, details of each treatment process discussed may be omitted and are provided in more specialized courses. The basic difference between a conventional water treatment plant and a direct filtration water treatment plant is a sedimentation basin. A conventional drinking water treatment plant has a sedimentation basin and a direct filtration plant does not. So, why would one be used over another? Below is an example of some of the “pros” and “cons” of a sedimentation basin.

    Sedimentation Basin Pros

    • Allows solids to settle out of the water prior to entering the filtration process
    • Reduces the amount and duration of backwashing filters

    Sedimentation Basin Cons

    • Sedimentation basins are large and require a bigger treatment plant
    • The sludge at the bottom of a sedimentation basin needs to be removed from time to time.

    We will now look at the other processes typically found in a conventional and direct filtration drinking water treatment plants. The photos provided in this section are courtesy of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.


    Coagulation is the process of chemical addition such as “Alum” to the water supply in order for small suspended particles to “stick” together forming floc. The chemicals added produce positive charges to neutralize the negative charges on the particles. The particles stick together becoming larger and larger during this process.

    G:\OER\Textbooks\Water Technology\Water 020\Graphics\Water 020 Page 63 Coagulation.jpg
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): – Coagulation.


    As the particles begin to stick together, the water is then sent through a series of tanks with “paddles.” These paddles are designed to slowly mix the water, bringing the particles together to form larger and larger particles called “floc.” The mixing process must be gentle enough to not break apart the floc back into smaller particles.

    G:\OER\Textbooks\Water Technology\Water 020\Graphics\Water 020 Page 64 Flocculation.jpg
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): – Flocculation.


    In conventional drinking water treatment plants the sedimentation process allows for the forces of gravity to allow the floc to “settle” to the bottom of the basin. Not all the floc will settle. As you might expect, the large particles settle more rapidly than small particles. Also, the slower the water moves through the basin the more particles will settle out. Water in a direct filtration plant moves straight from the flocculation tanks to the next step…filtration.

    C:\Users\johnson_a\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Windows\Temporary Internet Files\Content.Outlook\MUCOC6NG\Water 020 Page 64 Sedimentation (002).jpg
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): – Sedimentation.


    The filtration process is one of the most critical steps. Filters are commonly constructed in concrete boxes and contain sand and gravel. Sometimes other filter media is used, but many times sand is sufficient enough to remove the remaining suspended particles. The purpose of the gravel is to support the sand and prevent it from leaving the filter. Under the gravel is a structure called an “underdrain.” The purpose of the underdrain is to allow clear filtered water out of the filter while supporting the gravel and sand filter media. The process of backwashing will be discussed later.


    Prior to the water entering the distribution system, it is usually disinfected with a chlorine based disinfectant. Chlorine gas was and still is commonly used to provide a “free” chlorine residual throughout the distribution system. However, because of the water quality risk of disinfection byproducts, many water treatment plants are using a “total” chlorine residual by mixing chlorine and ammonia together. This disinfection process is referred to as chloramination.

    How much disinfectant is required before water can be provided to customers for domestic use?

    There are two “standards” when it comes to disinfection. There is a maximum residual disinfectant level (MRDL) and a minimum disinfectant level, which should be provided to the furthest areas within a distribution system. The MRDL is 4.0 mg/L and this level should not be exceeded in the water entering a distribution system. Typical free (chlorine) and total chlorine (chloramination) levels in water leaving a treatment plant can vary, but are commonly between 2.5 and 3.5 mg/L. The minimum residual level, which should be maintained in the furthest areas of a distribution system is 0.2 mg/L. Since microorganisms have the ability to multiply, a “residual” helps prevent regrowth and keeps the water free of pathogens. The previously mentioned dosage values typically provide enough disinfectant to kill/inactivate (disinfectant demand) remaining microorganisms and allow for a constant and minimal residual within the distribution system. The previous sentence used three (3) common terms associated with disinfection; dosage, demand, and residual.

    1. Dosage – is the amount of a disinfectant added.
    2. Demand – is the amount of disinfectant “used up” by the disinfection reducing agents in the water (microorganisms, organic matter, etc.)
    3. Residual – is the amount of disinfectant left in the water supply.

    Therefore, the following formula is commonly used.

    Dosage = Demand + Residual

    The amount of disinfectant added to a water supply (dosage) minus the amount “used up” (demand) equals the amount remaining, which is referred to as the residual.


    In order for treatment plants to provide large quantities of water to distribution systems, a large amount of storage is commonly required and provided at the treatment plant. This “post” storage can and often times be in the millions to tens of millions of gallons. Therefore, treatment plants require large areas of land for the entire treatment process and storage.

    Additional Treatment Processes

    If the influent quality of water coming into a treatment plant or if the water supply a distribution system is producing, (often times from groundwater wells), is contaminated and not within drinking water standards, the water will require additional treatment. Some of these processes include but are not limited to, ion exchange, membrane filtration, and air stripping. Ion exchange, for example, is the process of removing ions using water with opposite charged ions. In Water 050 and 052, you will take a more in depth look at each process and analyze the benefits and challenges a water treatment operator might encounter.

    Careers in Drinking Water Treatment

    Because many drinking water treatment plants are wholesale water providers, meaning they sell water to various water agencies, the extent of career opportunities and paths can be quite extensive. They can have careers ranging from field technicians, maintenance workers, treatment plant operators, engineers, water resource professionals, as well as a variety of office and policy related opportunities. For example, Metropolitan Water District (MWD) of California deliveries is one of the largest wholesaler water suppliers in the country. MWD provides approximately 1.7 billion gallons of water per day and is the largest contractor of the State Water Project. In addition to the responsibilities associated with operating a water treatment plant, MWD has an extensive distribution system. They also have the important task of securing sources of supply to ensure there is always enough water for the water retailers who purchase water from them. They have additional responsibilities in the areas of water conservation, legal matters, public relations, human resources, finance, administration…the list goes on and on. They employ almost 2,000 people with jobs ranging from laborers to scientists, to engineers and more. As you can imagine, trying to list and discuss the vast amount of opportunities for an organization like this would be a lengthy process. For an introductory course like this one it would be impractical. Therefore, we will just look at a smaller example of a drinking water treatment plant and focus on career opportunities available for students such as you.

    Treatment Plant Operator

    Water Treatment Plant Operators (WTPO) typically work various assigned shifts. It is not usually a typical “8 to 5” type of job. After all, treated, safe drinking water needs to be available to customers 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Therefore, WTPO need to work around the clock to make sure the treatment process is functioning efficiently. Below is a list of some of the more common tasks and responsibilities of a WTPO.

    • Ensure the treatment plant is operating
    • Perform biological, chemical, and physical laboratory tests on water
    • Interpret test results
    • Monitor and read gauges, meters, charts, and other treatment performance indicators
    • Monitor and inspect treatment process equipment and instrumentation
    • Make adjustments and take corrective action on treatment process equipment
    • Maintain operational and water quality records
    • Prepare reports
    • Participate in training programs

    In addition, other responsibilities may include cleaning and disinfecting storage tanks, flushing pipelines, and conducting public tours of the treatment plant. Often, plants will have a variety of automated processes and the WTPO will monitor these processes on a computer screen making adjustments through a Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition System (SCADA).

    Experience and educational qualifications will also depend on the size of the facility, but many entry level positions will require a minimum of a Grade 3 Treatment Operator certification (T3) or a Grade 2 Treatment Operator certification with the ability to obtain a T3 within a year of employment. Since treatment plants may also have an associated distribution system to get water to the utilities purchasing water from them, a Distribution Operator certification may also be required. The more education and experience you can obtain will always help your chances in landing a job. An associate’s or bachelor’s degree is sometimes listed as a “desirable” qualification.

    Water Treatment Plant Maintenance Worker

    Just as a distribution system needs maintaining, a water treatment plant also requires maintenance. Pumps and motors can malfunction. Pipes can leak. System process and equipment can breakdown requiring repairs or replacement. Therefore, most treatment plants will have a maintenance crew as part of the staff.

    Water Quality and Laboratory Staff

    Many water treatment plants will have their own drinking water laboratory to analyze samples throughout the treatment process ensuring proper function and for adjusting chemical doses. The staff might be in charge of collecting samples and running analytical instrumentation in the lab. They might also be responsible for writing reports and keeping track of water quality data for regulatory compliance.

    1.7: Water Treatment Facilities and Operations is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by College of the Canyons.

    • Was this article helpful?