What started out as a one-year job turned into 40 years for Dave Bennett.
The plant manager of Big Sioux Community Water System will retire at the end of this month after starting with the corporation in September 1980. His last day was Oct. 31.
Aric Olson, who started at the plant six years ago, is the new plant manager.
“I planned on working here a year and going to college,” Bennett said. After serving in the Navy, where he ran boilers and did fuel and water chemistry, he thought he should use the G.I. Bill to further his education, but instead he stuck with his job at the water system.
At first, he was in the field putting in services and fixing leaks. “The plant wasn’t even here when I started,” he said of the Big Sioux headquarters east of Egan, which opened in 1994.
During the years, he has been a part of the plant growth, going from three wells when he started to 20 now. The number of customers grew from about 750 to 2,200 and the towns of Colman, Egan, Flandreau, Trent, Chester and Madison have come online. A big day for usage was 400,000 gallons a day, compared to the peak of 1.9 million gallons in recent times. Big Sioux serves Dakota Ethanol with untreated water and expanded to add the large dairy south of Egan. Next year, the corporation could have a billion gallons of water through its lines, said Martin Jarrett, general manager.
Growth has given Bennett, 61, a chance to experience every aspect of the business and each position in the plant. There’s no way to replace that, Jarrett said.
“There’s basically nothing that hasn’t come up during Dave’s tenure in that system,” Jarrett said. “That is definitely something we’re going to miss.”
Both Bennett and Olson are certified to run the plant, a job that requires is 24-hours-a-day monitoring. Bennett checks all of the usage and activity from his phone and receives an alert if something is wrong.
“At home, I sit on my phone, and it’s just like I’m sitting at my control panel here,” he said.
In 1989, Big Sioux was one of the first water systems in the state to install a system control and data acquisition, technology for monitoring that is more precise and has led to a quicker response time for the system.
Big Sioux won’t replace the position lost with Bennett’s retirement, and will have eight workers instead of nine, Jarrett said. The corporation had ramped up by adding Olson as an additional employee when it started replacing all of the meters in the system with smart meters. That project is completed, he said.
Big Sioux was incorporated in 1972, having been started by a group of farmers mostly in the Colman and Chester areas who were drawing water from a very deep aquifer. “It’s really poor quality. The area was very interested in getting something going,” Jarrett said.
Two original board members from those start-up days still are on the board: Dan Carlson of Lake Madison and Andy Groos of Colman.
The plant manager’s job is to monitor the treatment of the water, order chemicals, complete testing and file required state reports. The water plant is a function that if done right, customers don’t even realize the work that goes into it.
“People never really think of water as a dynamic utility, but it is,” Jarrett said. “We have to monitor everything 24 hours a day.”
Olson is ready for the task even though it will be following in the footsteps of a long-time manager.
“A lot of experience is walking out the door,” said Olson, 25.
Bennett, who lives near Ward, has plans for his retirement, including a part-time job he has lined up for next summer. He also hopes to do woodworking and continue camping. “I raise a huge garden every year.”
He and his wife, Kathi, also dress as Santa and Mrs. Claus for area events and started the Team of Angels Foundation, which helps Moody County residents with out of town travel costs in a medical emergency. The foundation is something they started after their son, Blaine, died of cancer at age 17. They have two other grown children, Neil and his wife Brittany, and Alicia and two granddaughters, Sydney and Madyson.