When Columbia County residents turn on their faucets, water doesn't just magically appear.
But Billy Clayton works hard to make it seem that way.
The director of the Columbia County Water Utility recently was recognized as a 30-year member of the American Water Works Association.
Clayton spent those three decades as leader of Water Utility, the department that provides water and sewer services to about 38,000 Columbia County homes and businesses and oversees the county's stormwater system.
After working at an irrigation company specializing in golf courses, Clayton became a water treatment plant operator trainee in 1975.
Then, the county boasted only one water treatment plant and two wastewater treatment plants.
Clayton said he watched as Columbia County blossomed from a rural bedroom community of Augusta to a booming residential and business society.
"It was a very small system when I started here," Clayton said, adding that only residents in Martinez and fringes of the Evans area received county water and sewer service. "I think we had about 2,000 customers."
In 1979, Clayton took over as the superintendent of the system that he intended to make grow.
"I set a goal early on that I really thought was unachievable, that in my lifetime, before I retired, I wanted to see water on every major road in this county," Clayton said.
With hundreds of miles of water and sewer pipes countywide, Clayton said his goal is realistic.
But Clayton doesn't take any credit for the growth or success of the system, which has earned numerous awards, including many from the Georgia Association of Water Professionals.
"I've worked with an awful lot of great people and I continue to do so," he said. "My staff, a lot of them I've raised from pups. They are just good folks, hard workers. You have to be. Your staff is everything."
Mark Inglett, Water Utility operations manager, said he started working with Clayton in 1977. He said Clayton is a big reason he has made a career in the department. Neither of the men intended to spend his working life there.
"We've grown up together," said Inglett, who has worked with Clayton for 32 years. "The more we worked here, the more we liked it. It was the family atmosphere I think he inspires in us that made it so worthwhile."
When you call the Water Utility, you talk to a live human being, Clayton said.
"People deserve to be listened to," he said. "They deserve to be understood. And all my customers deserve what they pay for and I try to accomplish that for them."
It is that fun, family atmosphere that inspires everyone in the department to work hard and provide genuine customer service.
"And it really filters from the top down," Inglett said.
Clayton said he's merely one person among many who are responsible for the success and growth of the water system and of the department, which now employs about 120 people.
He attributes much of the growth to good commissioners who made the right decisions at the right times and courageously borrowed millions of dollars to expand the system.
"We, and I say we because I want to include my staff on that, stay very busy about trying to stay ahead of the curve in keeping capacity, both in (water) production and (wastewater) treatment plant capacity," Clayton said, adding that it takes about four years from the time officials deem a new treatment plant is needed until it is funded, constructed and in operation. "That's been one of the real keys."
He prefers to remain behind the scenes in a business where the less contact there is with customers, the better.
"The fewer times you have to call us the better off we all are," Clayton said. "That means every time you turn to the faucet, it comes on and (the water) is good and clean like it is supposed to be."
Clayton said the system, which now includes two water treatment plants and four wastewater treatment plants, is heavily regulated by the state Environmental Protection Division and the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
When not working, Clayton spends a lot of time improving his 15-acre property in Appling with his wife, Susan, fishing in his pond and spoiling his granddaughter, Jocelyn, who is nearly 2.
"I've gotten to watch this amazing county grow from its infancy to what it is now. No telling what it is going to be in 50 years from now.''
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