Visitors to the Loxahatchee River Center don’t just learn about the river — they can see, touch and feel it. A Touch Tank lets kids and other visitors pick up and hold aquatic creatures.
“Each group that comes through gets a Touch Tank demonstration,” says Jocelyn O’Neill, environmental education coordinator at the Loxahatchee River Center. “We’ve got sea urchins, sea cucumbers, snails, sea stars, and hermit crabs that they can touch and hold.”
The Touch Tank is just one of the attractions at the River Center, opened in 2008 and operated by the Loxahatchee River Environmental Control District (LRECD) in Jupiter, Fla. It’s a place where the public can learn about the importance of the Loxahatchee River and preserving its waters. The LRECD Wastewater Facility treats up to 11 mgd (design) and serves about 80,000 people. The reclaimed wastewater is used for irrigation.
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Protect and preserve
“The LRECD was put in place to protect and preserve the river, which is one of only two designated Wild and Scenic Rivers in Florida,” says O’Neill. “That was the whole mission of the district when it was formed 40 years ago.”
The staff of three educators at the 5,000-square-foot River Center teach students and adults how water in the river is used and reused within the community and why it needs to be protected.
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“The River Center has evolved within the LRECD to become an environmental education program,” says O’Neill. “None of us are operators, but we’re all educators.
“We bring people in to learn about the river and what we can do to protect it. That means treating wastewater to prevent pollutants from entering the river. It also means reusing that water in our community as an alternative source of water — again protecting the river and reducing the amount of water taken out of the watershed.”
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The River Center gets about 20,000 visitors each year. Different exhibits show and tell the public how wastewater treatment works and how it relates to them. Says O’Neill: “We have a nice, big exhibit that shows how the people in the community get their water, how they use it, and then what happens to it after they use it, which gets into wastewater and reuse.
“The water balance display discusses water resources and how they’re used, and the balance between the two. That includes using reuse water as an alternative resource.”
Both displays are interactive, creating a hands-on learning experience. “We also have several aquariums and each one of them represents a different habitat on the Loxahatchee River,” says O’Neill.
Operations staff members were involved in planning and designing the displays. “When they were first designing it, we gave all the artists a tour of the plant and told them about the processes, and helped them with the photos and the captions,” says plant superintendent Sheldon Primus. “I designed a schematic they could use for the displays.”
The staff at the River Center provides group-specific education based on the students’ ages and their reason for visiting.
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“For the Girl Scouts, we have a great program called the Eco-Action Interest Patch,” says O’Neill. “One of the components is always science and technology. That’s when we get into the specifics about wastewater treatment, what’s involved with certain steps, why it has evolved into the technology we’re using today, and the advancements we’re still making.”
Groups use a range of skills to understand how wastewater treatment works. “For each student field trip group that comes through here, we provide a component that specifically takes them through each one of the exhibits and gets them to interact in a direct way using math skills and word skills,” says O’Neill.
Operators join in
The three River Center staff members can’t do it all by themselves, so the operators at the LRECD play a big role in helping the citizens of Jupiter understand why their water is important.
O’Neill notes: “Whenever we’re doing an outreach in the community, Sheldon and all of his operators are always available for us.
“At the Jupiter Jubilee annual community event, we set up our table with a big display, and the operators are there so people have a way to be involved with the Loxahatchee River on a more personal level.”
Primus adds: “At the Jubilee, we have a display that shows the reuse portion of the system and we give out materials so people understand the difference between their drinking water supply and the reuse supply. We educate the public that the more they use the reuse water, the less they’re taking away from the drinking water supply.
“We gear a lot of the handouts toward the kids, like coloring books. We want to catch them early so they start thinking environmentally.”
Primus also participates in local events distinct from the River Center. “Envirothon, a two-day event held locally in Jupiter, is a science competition between high school environmental students,” he says. “The district was one of the key sponsors last year. I talked to the youth about the process of wastewater and what the field is like for those who are interested in staying in environmentalism as they go through college and graduate. Our Jupiter High School won the Envirothon in 2011.”
Seeing and hearing from the plant staff gives the public a chance to see what the operators are all about. “We’re not like the Ed Norton types from ‘The Honeymooners,’” Primus jokes.
Getting the word out
O’Neill and her staff do not just wait for visitors at the River Center. They are proactive in getting information out.
“Going to events is a big pull for us to get the word out about the River Center,” O’Neill says. “We get a lot of people that way who haven’t been exposed to us before. We also use Facebook and we have a website (www.loxahatcheeriver.org).
“Through our school program, every student goes home with a personal invitation to return to the River Center with their family. We tell them, ‘You’ll be the tour guide.’”
The Loxahatchee River Center is a central location for people to come and learn, but the staff reaches out beyond those four walls. Says O’Neill: “Our objective is for people to understand why wastewater treatment is necessary and how it functions in their community.”