Out and About

Two high-profile events give a Mississippi wastewater district’s employees their first opportunities to take the treatment story to the public
Out and About
Judy Marshall talks to students at the Outdoor Conservation Field Day/Public Lands Day, sponsored by DeSoto County and Tate County Soil and Water districts, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Mississippi Extension Service.

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Like many people living in one of the nation’s fastest growing counties, the DeSoto County Regional Utility Authority is a relative newcomer to the northwest corner of Mississippi — it has served the area for just a little more than a decade.

The county has seen its population explode as businesses and people move to the outer suburbs of Memphis just south of the Tennessee state line. The county was growing so fast at the turn of the century that Mississippi environmental authorities told local officials they needed to build a new wastewater system or see new development halted, recalls Judy Marshall, executive assistant to executive director William Austin and the authority’s board.

Marshall and Kelly Bowles, an operations and maintenance technician at the 4 mgd Short Fork Wastewater Treatment Facility, decided in 2010 that the authority and county residents would benefit if the public understood more about the new entity, founded in 2000 to serve more than 60,000 people in a county that is home to 160,000.

Last year, they took their message to two high-profile community events and made a big impression on school children and adults alike.


The cheerleaders

“Wastewater is not exciting, except maybe to us,” says Marshall. “But it’s critical to our community, and we’re our only cheerleaders.” Therefore, she and Bowles looked for ways to share the utility’s story. They decided the best way to reach people was through two community events that fit with the wastewater system’s mission.

The board approved their request for $500 for supplies and materials, and they first secured a spot at the annual Outdoor Conservation Field Day/Public Lands Day, sponsored by DeSoto County and Tate County Soil and Water districts, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Mississippi State Extension Service.

The event brings more than 1,000 fifth-grade students from two counties to learn about environmental issues. It is held at the Corps of Engineers’ Arkabutla Lake in the western part of the county — a fitting site, since the Short Fork plant discharges upstream from the lake.

For their first public presentation, Marshall and Bowles put together a storyboard of the wastewater treatment process from a sink drain to the discharge pipe. They also collected educational materials from a variety of sources, including the U.S. EPA. They estimate they met with more than 750 students as classes came to their station under a portable awning.


Grabbing attention

Marshall says Meleiah Tyus of the conservation district did the utility a great service when she welcomed their request to join the Field Day. “There aren’t a lot of people who can give you that opportunity to get out and educate so many children about wastewater,” she says.

With so many classes to meet, Marshall and Bowles needed to get the children’s attention quickly and then tell them about the treatment process in a short time. “Our first question to them was: ‘What is wastewater and where does it go?’” Bowles says. “You know how kids say the darndest things? They really did. That got us off to a good start with each group.”

The storyboard served as an outline for their presentation. “It takes them step by step through the process,” Marshall says. “It starts with a house. Then we go to a lift station and talk about what that does. Then to the headworks and what that does, then to the aeration basins where we talk to them about activated sludge.” Bowles made the presentation and used settleometers to illustrate the state of the wastewater at various stages of treatment.


On to Earth Day

The experience at the Field Day was so positive that Marshall and Bowles took their presentation to the county’s first organized Earth Day activities last April 30 on the county courthouse square in Hernando, one of five communities the authority serves. They used many of the materials from the Field Day and passed out 300 flyers about the utility and its services.

They also spoke with hundreds of people. “We met with a lot of teachers, and we put the word out that we want to get out into the schools and speak to classes about what we do,” says Bowles. They found the adults they met on Earth Day just as curious as the students they encountered at the Field Day.

“So many adults, when they saw the aerial shot of our Short Fork plant, said they didn’t realize how big our operation was,” Bowles says. “We need to try to educate the community about what happens to their water once it goes down the drain.”

Marshall, a DeSoto County native whose first exposure to wastewater treatment came when she was hired to work at the new utility, has taken on the education work because she has learned how important the system is to the community. “We’ve got a beautiful area,” she says, “and taking care of the water is part of preserving it. I love this county, and now I’m right in the middle of protecting it.”


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