Woken by a phone ringing late at night is never good; it’s either a wrong number or perhaps it’s an old high school sweetheart who might have the yearbook out and is into a third glass of wine. But, for Phillip Everett, 30-year veteran with Lake Livingston Water Supply’s (LLWS) and its chief superintendent, late-night calls are part of his job.
One of those calls brought him out to Sam Houston Lake Estates at midnight to fix a broken water main. He pulled his truck off the lonesome road and positioned is so that the headlights gave him enough light to work on a moonless night in the woods. He was just wrapping up when what sounded like a woman shrieking in complete and utter agony shot through the woods and right up through his spine. The complete silence that ensued left the experienced outdoorsman drenched in cold sweat.
He scanned the immediate vicinity with his flashlight and for several minutes heard nothing moving in the woods around him. He wrapped up his work as quickly as he could and made it back home to Shepherd with his heart in his throat.
“I had trouble getting back to sleep after that,” Everett said. “An experience like that is not a typical part of what happens at the water company.” As he recounted the story it‘s evident the memory is as fresh as if it had happened yesterday.
Early the next morning, with benefit of daylight, Everett traveled back to the leak site to make sure his repair work was holding. He was surprised to see there were no residences or commercial buildings for miles around. Everett inspected the water main and it was operating as it should. He looked around the work area and just 25 yards or so into the woods noticed what appeared to be tracks made by a large feline.
“I’m not saying a panther watched me fix a leak that night, but I have no other explanation for what made that horrible scream,” he said. “Most of the time the biggest danger our field guys face is poison oak or maybe a customer’s dog - sometimes a cottonmouth. It’s just part of the job when you’re suppling water to 7000 customers over six rural counties.”
Fifty-two year old Everett has spent the best part of his career at Lake Livingston Water Supply and is one of its longest serving employees. Everett joined the company after graduating from high school in Shepherd at 18 and has moved up through the ranks earning promotions and more responsibility by completing educational courses and obtaining licenses.
As a life-long resident of Shepherd, Everett grew up hunting, playing ball and following the achievements of heroes like Nolan Ryan and Earl Campbell without ever considering moving away. Two months after graduating high school, Philip Everett hired on with Pine Springs Utility, the precursor to what is now LLWS. In its first decade the upstart company experienced operational and financial difficulties and after a series of belt-tightening moves laid off most of its staff including Everett in 1991.
“It wasn’t a surprise at the time when it happened,” recounted Everett, “But the day you get laid off is never a good day. But, you just pick yourself up and dust yourself off and do the things anyone has to do with responsibilities and a family depending on you.”
Everett made himself a valuable asset to the company. He acquired his D operator license just after joining LLWS; his C license in 1985; and his B license in 1987. When the company went into bankruptcy in 1994, Everett was a hot commodity and another water company snatched him up. It also made him one of the first people hired back, and at higher pay, when the company emerged from bankruptcy after turning itself around.
Still today, LLWS encourages its employees to improve their skills by offering fully paid training and certification testing to all field workers. Basic certification involves a D License and is relatively simple to get. For A, B and C licenses, more coursework, testing and job experience is required. For every level of certification up through an A operator’s license employees receive pay increases.
Anyone who’s been in a career for more than 30 years like Everett has seen a lot of changes take place, professionally and otherwise. He remembers when Walmart opened in Livingston and how it became almost the center of the universe for residents living in a 50 miles radius. He also grew up with the creation and development of Lake Livingston.
“Developers sprang up almost from out of nowhere,” Everett reminisces. “It was easy to carve house lots out of the forest,” he said, “but little thought was given to utilities and how the buyers would be served.” Everett says some of those conditions still exist today when developers transfer their water needs over to LLWS. “They realize it when water pressure drops because of too much demand and then they rely on LLWS to come on line.” For the bulk of LLWS customers well water has been the solution for most developmental needs, but new technology is changing all that.
LLWS is currently bringing on-line two surface water treatment plants that will replace the need for well water for almost 40% of its customers. Surface treatment plants hold advantages over ground water in both quality and reliability. When people swarm to the lake over a big weekend some LLWS customers experience pressure drops with the added strain put on some wells.
LLWS has invested more than $7 million in two surface plants, one located in Trinity County and the other in Polk County. Both plants will harvest water from Lake Livingston and pump it through purification plants that constantly monitor water quality and ensure a consistent and reliable supply to customers.
“LLWS has made a significant investment in making sure customers get a reliable source of quality water,” said Everett. “The plants are computer-monitored 24/7 for quality and volume which means a more consistent supply – a more dependable source. The plants are fully automated making tweaks all day every day. There’s still human oversight and operators are on hand for emergency situations, but once the plants are on stream I know customers will appreciate it.”
But new technology doesn’t erase all the challenges LLWS has in delivering water across six counties and into some pretty remote areas. Trees becoming uprooted in wind storms will break water mains and where some lines are laid shallower than they should be, heavy equipment will sometimes crack a pipe.
“We’ve gotten better at discovering leaks over the years, but we still need our customers to call it in when they notice one.”
LLWS has recently installed a system of meters that measure water pumped from wells and pushed through the systems to customers. When the volumes don’t match up the operators at LLWS are alerted that there is a leak.
Probably the worst situations the company faced were the aftereffects of hurricanes Rita and Ike in 2005 and 2008 respectively. “Our biggest issues were getting power to our wells so we could pump,” Everett recalls. “Generators were in short supply and the ones coming from FEMA went to other departments and agencies deemed more vital – like hospitals, police and fire.” After Hurricane Ike, LLWS installed emergency backup generators at all the major plants in the district.
When Everett reflects over the span of a 30 year career with LLWS he’s reminded of the time his own son P.J. asked him what it was that made him stick with the same company all this time. He remembers telling him, “You have to love what you do. Once you find something that you really like you tend to take it seriously, you earn respect from the people you work with, and you’ll do the job in almost any condition Mother Nature throws at you.”
What’s not clear is if Everett told P.J. those words of wisdom before or after his late-night encounter in the woods with a panther.