Above: OYA facility operations specialist Scott Robarge and youth Dakota O. check on Camp Riverbend’s wastewater treatment system.
As you drive up to Camp Riverbend Youth Transitional Facility near La Grande, you’ll pass three fenced-off lagoons on the left.
The lagoons are part of a complex wastewater treatment system that allows the facility to re-use its wastewater for irrigation.
And thanks to the work of facility operations specialist Scott Robarge, they’ve also become a hands-on learning tool for youth.
When Robarge first came to Riverbend in 2007, his position included operating the treatment plant — something he had to learn through on-the-job training and by interning under a contracted operator.
OYA installed the plant when it first built the facility. Riverbend’s size and remote location next to a river meant it needed to move from a septic system to a full wastewater treatment plant.
Robarge ultimately earned a license to become the plant’s operator. Then he took it a step farther by creating an education program to train and certify youth as wastewater treatment operators.
“I already had youth working with me in maintenance, and I thought I’d get them licensed in wastewater treatment,” Robarge says. “I think it’s a great career for them. There’s hardly anybody in this industry.”
Nearly 80 youth started the program over the past decade. Fourteen completed it, and 12 earned their licenses.
Part of the dropout rate is due to the nature of the job. “Wastewater treatment” doesn’t exactly sound glamorous.
“There’s not a lot of people it appeals to,” Robarge says. “When I went to my first class, they said that 80% of the operators were going to retire in the next three years, and they only had about 10% training to replace them.
“It sounds like a dirty job, but it’s really not. It can be, but mostly it’s taking samples, doing tests and reports, and making sure the public is safe.”
“And making sure the ducks are safe,” he added with a chuckle. A duck family made its home on one of the lagoons this past spring.
Even for youth who are serious about it, the job is not easy.
They must complete at least one year of on-the-job training, a tough requirement for youth who might only be at Riverbend for a few months.
Students also have to enroll in Sacramento State University’s online wastewater program and complete self-study work through books and videos. Then, they have to pass a state exam to earn their license.
Along the way, they apply complex math equations, learn how to use an electronic water telemetry system, and conduct numerous tests to make sure the water is safe.
Those who complete the program have a solid career opportunity in a specialized field, Robarge says.
That’s part of what appealed to Brendan B. He graduated from the Sacramento State program last fall, he has a provisional license, and he’s currently working on getting his state license.
“I figured it would be a great job for me when I get out, and it’s a good challenge,” the 23-year-old says.
“You need patience because you have to do a lot of math and problem-solving, figuring out how to fix problems. If your lagoon is a different color than it should be, you have to figure out what chemicals to put in to make it right.”
Dakota O., 20, recently started the program in hopes of setting himself up for more job opportunities when he’s back in the community.
His preconceptions about the job ended up being quite different from reality.
“I came into it expecting the whole Mike Rowe, ‘Dirty Jobs’ kind of shtick,” Dakota says. “It’s actually really clean compared to people’s expectations. You sample water, make sure everything is regulated, make some tweaks and adjustments, and go about your business.”
Robarge says the program benefits youth even if they don’t pursue a wastewater management career.
“If they’re engaged in it enough to complete the program … it shows that they were committed for over a year at something,” Robarge says. “It’s like a trade school. And the money that’s involved in wastewater is huge. They can write their own ticket.”