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High school students test out water quality jobs

Career-shadowing program pairs teens with Denver Water employees.

As a student from Arvada West High School wrenched open a small Pulsafeeder pump in Denver Water’s Recycling Plant, Damon McCurdy watched over his shoulder.

“Maintenance will teach you patience,” laughed McCurdy, water treatment lead at the utility’s Recycling Plant

With a final twist, the student, Israel Hampl, freed the pump lid and began draining the old oil into a plastic bucket. 

Denver Water’s Damon McCurdy, left, helps Arvada West High School student Israel Hampl change the oil on a Pulsafeeder pump at the utility’s Recycling Plant. Photo credit: Denver Water.

Hampl, in his senior year at the high school, and McCurdy, who joined Denver Water in 2008, were working together as part of Arvada West’s Advanced Studies in Water Quality class, a career-readiness course that allows students to earn credit at Red Rocks Community College while gaining on-the-job experience in the water industry. 

“They get an idea of what the job entails and can talk to an employee about how they got to where they are today,” said Ellen Olson, a community relations senior specialist who organized the pilot job shadow program. “And it allows us to share what we do with the next generation of employees.”

Many employees started as interns and built a long, rewarding career at Denver Water. 

Eighteen students participated in the four-week program in October, most visiting at least two of Denver Water’s treatment plants or water quality labs. Plans are in the works for a second job-shadowing experience with the utility's water quality and treatment group in the spring, Olson said. 

Chris Madsen, the students’ teacher, said increasing costs of tuition make it more important than ever for students to have a clear idea of their career plans before graduating from high school.

“Twenty-five years ago, you could switch majors and try different things and you weren’t in debt for the rest of your life,” Madsen said. “That’s just not how it works anymore.”

At the Recycling Plant in late October, Logan Whetstone, a junior, said he’s considering a career in the water industry because he enjoys fishing, often going with his father to Chatfield, Horsetooth or Carter reservoirs to fish for bass.

“You can’t fish without water,” he said. 

Damon McCurdy, left, helps Arvada West High School student Logan Whetstone work on a pump at the Recycling Center. Photo credit: Denver Water.

High school senior Bryce Williams said a job in water treatment would be a fulfilling and essential career. 

“You’re a vital part in making sure water is clean,” he said. “That’s so important.”

McCurdy, who began his career as a mechanic at Toyota, told the students that working for a place like Denver Water is full of confidence-building challenges. 

Check out Denver Water’s Youth Education team in action

Not too long ago, the Recycling Plant manager tasked McCurdy with redesigning the coagulant feed system used to deliver compounds that help clean the recycled water as it moves through the plant. Skeptical at first, McCurdy and his co-workers created mechanical drawings, detailed the number of pipe elbows and flanges the new feed system would need and then built it.

“None of us had ever done anything like that before,” he said. “But we got it done. That’s what it’s like here. You never get bored. There’s always something going on.” 

Nicole Babyak, water quality and treatment manager, left, talks to a group of Arvada West students about the recycled water treatment process. Photo credit: Denver Water.

Nicole Babyak, water quality and treatment manager, led the group on a tour of the Recycling Plant, which was shut down for maintenance at the time. But the closure was a unique opportunity for students to see all the parts and equipment in the plant up close, without water churning through it. 

“I want to get people into the water industry,” Babyak said. “I find it interesting, what it takes to deliver water to your tap. And if they come here and find a passion for something they didn’t know they had a passion for, they’ll realize they really can make an impact.”