He’s run operation that includes 21 lift stations, 77 miles of pipeline and a wastewater treatment plant
by Joni Astrup
Since 1998, Gary Leirmoe has been quietly running the city of Elk River’s wastewater treatment system.
It’s a vital, but low-profile, job.
“We’re kind of out of sight and out of mind until it doesn’t work,” he said. “It’s the nature of the business in wastewater, nobody thinks about us until something’s wrong.”
Leirmoe is retiring May 9 after 21 years with the city. He initially worked as an operator and was appointed as wastewater treatment chief operator in 1998.
As chief operator, Leirmoe has been responsible for the operation and maintenance of Elk River’s city sewer system. The system consists of lift stations, nearly 80 miles of pipeline, and a wastewater treatment plant.
Leirmoe said he likes the fact that no two days are alike and that even after more than 30 years in the field, he is still learning something new.
He also has found a sense of accomplishment in the work.
“I’m cleaning up the water, helping the environment,” he said.
The wastewater treatment plant uses all natural biological processes in treating the wastewater, he said. The treated biosolids are applied as fertilizer to 135 acres of farm land the city owns in eastern Elk River. The water goes through an extensive treatment process before being discharged to the Mississippi. Leirmoe said the water they discharge to the river is actually much cleaner than the Mississippi itself.
One of his career highlights came in 2001, when the wastewater treatment plant won top plant in Region 6 and placed second nationally — confirmation that they were doing things right.
The plant handles the wastewater from homes, schools, churches, businesses and other entities in Elk River’s urban service area.
Over the years Leirmoe said he’s found dentures, toys and occasionally money that ended up at the plant after being flushed down a toilet somewhere in Elk River.
Today, he said they are facing a couple of challenges stemming from disposal habits.
One is biodegradable wipes, which can plug lift station pumps if they are flushed down the toilet.
Fats, oils and greases are another problem. When dumped down the drain they can clog sewer lines. “The grease hardens, builds a dam and stuff starts piling in behind it,” Leirmoe explained.
Plant’s capacity has increased over time
A Vietnam veteran and native of Dubuque, Iowa, Leirmoe got into the wastewater treatment business while working at a Dubuque meat packing plant. When the plant put in a pretreatment sewage plant and Leirmoe was put in charge of it, he found out he liked the work. That prompted him to return to school at age 35, driving 90 miles one way every day to study water and wastewater treatment at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, while holding down a full-time job at night and raising a family with his wife, Patricia.
He eventually left the meat packing plant and moved on to municipal work in Iowa. Then in 1993 he and his family moved to Elk River, where Leirmoe went to work for the city in wastewater treatment.
Today the plant handles 1.2 million gallons a day, there are 21 lift stations and 77 miles of pipeline.
He said a common misconception about the operation is that it is funded by property taxes.
But Leirmoe said they don’t get one cent of tax money. Rather, “the sewer bill you pay each month pays for this stuff,” he said.
Mayor proclaims Gary Leirmoe Day
Leirmoe was honored at Monday’s Elk River City Council meeting. Mayor John Dietz proclaimed May 9 Gary Leirmoe Day in Elk River.
Suzanne Fischer, community operations and development director for the city, said Leirmoe has been part of six wastewater treatment plant expansions (and another one is imminent) during his career in Elk River and has addressed countless service calls for blocked pipes and plugged pumps.
“We are very thankful for all of his dedication and long hours that he invested to make sure that the plant was always running effectively,” she said.
Leirmoe has successfully managed daily operations as well as led and developed his staff, she said.
He supervises a staff of six full-time employees and one seasonal employee — all licensed and certified by the state.
One of them is Lead Operator Matt Stevens. He has been named interim wastewater chief operator effective May 10. Stevens said Leirmoe kind of took him under his wing and helped show him the ropes.
“I’m very grateful for that,” he said.
As he heads into retirement, Leirmoe said he and his wife will probably spend some time traveling to visit their grandchildren. They have six children and eight grandchildren.
He also enjoys fishing, working with wood, watching old classic movies and reading about history.