This week’s blog is written by Laurie Loftin, a frequent docent of our fecal galleries
Raw sewage. Wastewater. Septic tank sludge. I admit, not one of these words gets me very excited, much less makes
me want to go and look at this…stuff. However, I invite people at least once a quarter to come and do just that with a visit to a site full of this “product”. And every time I put out an open invitation, a group of folk signs up to come look, listen, and smell.
I work for a public utility department responsible for managing three water reclamation facilities. Each location has dedicated workers who question the sanity of those who want to come for a tour. I can’t answer why people want to visit, but I can give reasons as to why we, as a utility, should continue to invite them as a guest.
1. The public asks to come. Really! They do! We offer educational opportunities to college students in engineering, science education, environmental design, and other water studies. A UGA art class looking for “water in motion” used our influent as inspiration during their study of aqueous media. Elementary teachers introduce their students to the beneficial side of decomposers and microorganisms in action. Parents can show their curious child what happens to the water (or toy, money, jewelry, etc.) after it goes down the drain or toilet. Couples create lasting and romantic memories while on a Valentine’s Day tour. We even participated in “The World’s Largest and Greatest Scavenger Hunt the World has Ever Seen“, which is a global charity event. Participants marked off “visit a wastewater facility in formal wear and take a photo of one of them playing a flute.” (As I said, I can’t answer why they want to come. Who could ever see this coming as a reason?)
2. The Environmental Protection Division “suggests” it, so I guess you could say we are required to give tours. In Georgia, we must fill out an annual report to keep our permit. The report includes a section entitled, “Summary of Public Participation Activities”. Tours fall into this category and are one way to help us complete this specific requirement.
3. Allows for recruitment. Many of today’s operators are reaching an age when retirement starts to look pretty enticing. With computers as the competition, the younger generation isn’t necessarily moving in to quickly fill these openings. A visit to the world of wastewater introduces students to career options they may never have considered. On several occasions, after a tour with an animated and excited operator, children have told me “this is where I am going to work one day.” The older college students inquire about internship opportunities. The engineering students learn how to design a WRF and may decide to pursue water infrastructure as their specialty after seeing firsthand the operations of such a facility.
4. Provides you with a captive audience. Take this time to educate your visitors about the proper disposal of FOG, the history of wastewater treatment, and the 4 P’s of flushing. Show a display of individual containers with one holding wipes, another with toilet paper, and yet another with paper towels submerged in water. This visual effectively illustrates the incredible durability of a premoistened wipe and results in amazed looks and comments from your gathering. Explain how using water efficiently reduces the wear and tear on the parts of a WRF, thus lessening the need to replace parts and helps to keep their bills lower. Once in this industry, much of this information is common sense; to the public, it is all brand new and valuable knowledge.
5. Brings the hidden infrastructure above ground. How many miles of water pipes are under the ground in your city? Athens, GA has almost 800 miles. If laid end to end, these pipes would reach to New York City. We have an additional 500 miles in sewer pipes. This distance would take you to the Magical Kingdom in Orlando, FL. People rarely give much thought to the amount of infrastructure necessary to carry out our basic daily needs. With pipes across the nation reaching the end of their useful life, the time for replacement is near and the cost for this undertaking will be enormous. Tours offer a chance to enlighten and remind guests of the importance of our water systems. They gain a small insight into what it takes to provide reliable wastewater service.
6. Gives a face to our workers. Tours remind the public there are real people working at the other end of the pipes. Their wastewater doesn’t automagically clean itself before entering back into our water resources. Someone is there to remove, by hand if necessary, the “flushable” items put down the toilet 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Hopefully, this encounter with a smiling face encourages our guests to think both at the sink and before they flush. We are waiting at the other end.
Tours are not going to change the essence of what our facility does. Let’s face it. We will always be associated with sewage and sludge, which should not be viewed as a negative. What a tour can do is remind the public how vital wastewater services are to our economy, the environment, and public health. Guests see firsthand the power we have to reclaim, refresh, and return clean water to the source. They offer us a chance to change public perception. People are welcome and expected to arrive at our locations saying “Ewww.” But when they leave, I want them saying “Aaah.”