Step by Step

A simple animation program walks visitors through every step of wastewater treatment at the Harlingen WaterWorks System facility
Step by Step
When the animated tour guide points to the anoxic basins, a text box pops up to explain that is where “microorganisms metabolize the organic material using nitrates as a source of oxygen.”

Teaching people about what happens after they flush the toilet is a challenge for every wastewater treatment agency.

The 18,000 customers of the Harlingen (Texas) WaterWorks System can now go online to see in-depth animation of how wastewater is cleaned at the city’s treatment plant before discharge to the Arroyo Colorado River.

Environmental compliance director Randy Reichle created an animation of the treatment process that visitors can view on the city website. “I’ve been doing this type of animation for about 15 years,” he says. “When I moved to Harlingen, I noticed we had nothing educational for the public to see how their wastewater is treated. It’s something other plants could consider for their own processes.”

Reichle’s animation is also used at public events, such as career fairs. “We’re sending a copy to a local high school because the science teacher wants to show it,” he says. “Students are being taught to ‘Go Green.’ By viewing this animation, they can see how their efforts can help minimize the treatment process. They will learn what is required to keep waters safe for swimming and to keep the fish safe to eat.”

It also helps educate people about the extensive treatment that goes into reclaimed water being used in the community. “That will help them know that the fields receiving reclaimed water are safe for their recreational or sporting events,” he says. His work can also be used to help new operators as part of their orientation and training.


Detailed descriptions

Viewers can watch the 30-minute program in automatic mode, stepping through each animated section, or select specific processes within the 7 mgd plant’s operation.

In the automatic mode, a short introduction shows the location of the city 10 miles from the Mexican border and 30 miles from the Gulf coast, along with maps of WaterWorks facilities. A high-level demonstration then shows how waste travels from homes and businesses through a typical treatment plant: headworks, primary clarifier, aeration basins, final clarifier, chlorination and discharge. Biosolids and septage processes are also described.

Next is a detailed animation of the Harlingen plant with a short on-screen description of each major component. For instance, when the animated tour guide points to the anoxic basins, a text box pops up to explain that is where “microorganisms metabolize the organic material using nitrates as a source of oxygen.”

A facility map shows all flow paths in the plant. “Then it breaks it down into the individual processes and shows the flow coming into that process and where it goes,” says Reichle. The automatic mode steps viewers through each one in order.

Visitors also can manually view any of 25 individual processes showing, for instance, how wastewater flows from the aeration basins, through final clarifiers and into the chlorine contact chamber. The animated arrows are color-coded to distinguish between raw wastewater, treated water, biosolids and grit.


Easy download

Reichle’s program is available for download at the Harlingen WaterWorks website ( Reichle spent six months developing the animation using a programming language called Visual C++. It requires the download of an executable (.exe) file.

“The latest technique is Flash programming,” he says. Flash is a standard feature of Internet browsers and does not require the download of programs to view the animation. “I’m satisfied with what Visual C++ can accomplish, and I didn’t want to learn a new programming language,” Reichle explains.

The cost of computer animation varies greatly depending upon the level of detail and quality of the artwork. There are low-cost programs that are relatively easy for a treatment plant staff member to learn. Agencies may also be able to work with student interns to get the work done.

Other plants can link to the Harlingen WaterWorks System download page to help educate their own customers. While it is specific to the Harlingen process, the program provides a good overview of the steps in producing clean water from sewage and can help the public understand how treatment plants in general protect the environment.

“The animation shows people that treating their waste is an expensive and complex microbiological process,” says Reichle. “So think before you flush something down the toilet!”


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