Mel Workman, right, of Rogue Valley Sewer Services, monitors the pressure of a pipeline on Alta Vista Road in Eagle Point. 2/13/08 Denise Baratta

Stuff Happens

While his sense of humor might have wavered the day some 2,000 gallons of sewage plunged down a manhole and onto his head, Mel Workman insists he can't think of too many times when he hasn't enjoyed his job over the past 15 years.

"There are a lot of stories where we get a little bit of the yuckies on all of us," says the Rogue Valley Sewer Services inspector. "They tell us that sewer actually is about five percent the nasties. When you flush the toilet, it's mostly water being used.

"So we tell ourselves, 'Aw, it's only five percent.' "

Workman's most humorless day occurred while he was a relative newbie on a line-cleaning crew. Back in those days, cleaning out sewer lines required workers to go down the manholes. Unfortunately for Workman, a latch on the sewer truck failed, sending the nasties cascading on top of him.

"Today it's funny," Workman says.

Now a second-level inspector, Workman ensures new sewer systems are properly installed before being connected to the regional system.

"I'll go out and make sure what we're going to take over is being put in properly," says Workman. "We kind of look out for the homeowner in the end. Once they buy that house, when they flush the toilet, take a shower, do clothes, it just all goes away and they don't want to have a problem."

All told, the district serves some 27,700 businesses and homes in Central Point, Eagle Point, Jacksonville, Phoenix, Talent, White City and portions of west and north Medford.

"We maintain something like 380 miles of pipe," Workman says, "and it all has to flow."

While sewer inspection is unlikely to rank near the top of anyone's dream job, Workman says the technology involved and the people he works with keep him coming back.

Born in Medford and raised in Talent, Workman graduated from Phoenix High School in 1976, entered the military and, after a short stint at KOGAP Enterprises, went to work on the oil rigs in Oklahoma and Texas. He eventually made his way to Oregon to earn a certificate in diesel power technology at Oregon Institute of Technology.

From there, he worked outside the country in Africa, South America, the North Sea, always on the water helping search for oil.

"We'd find it and draw the X in the water and say dig there," says Workman.

When he started a family, Workman settled back in the Rogue Valley and took a job at Rogue Valley Plywood while putting out applications.

"I needed work and I didn't want to be on unemployment," he says.

"When I applied for this job, I felt like there was a lot of crossover. They have lots of pumps, vehicles "¦ and sometimes you end up doing things you really didn't train for. I had the education for it so I was able to become an inspector pretty quickly."

Over the years, the now 50-year-old has watched his duties evolve with technology. Things such as manual cleaning and inspection of lines are now done with cameras and special machinery.

At the end of the system are 33 acres of lagoon that, courtesy of Mother Nature, allow debris to break down under a bright sun, thus benefiting the region's water quality.

An avid fisherman, Workman takes pride in the fact local waterways such as Bear Creek are cleaner thanks to the work he puts in Monday through Friday.

"Bear Creek is cleaner now than it was back in the '60s when all they had was septic tanks," says Workman.

"Used to be, drain fields failed and where do you think people would pipe their stuff to? We are environmentalists, too. We're not out raising heck but we're just quietly taking care of business."

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