From Old to New

The City of Jacksonville (N.C.) reuses former treatment plant infrastructure to create a civic environmental education center
From Old to New
Sturgeon City Institute participants seine for aquatic life along the newly constructed wetlands area, at the site of the former wastewater treatment plant.

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When the former Greater Jacksonville (N.C.) Wastewater Treatment Facility became unusable, the city took “makeover” to the extreme and turned its infrastructure into a civic environmental education center for local students and community members.

The result is Sturgeon City. Situated on 26 acres, the center grew out of a vision to use the old plant’s tanks to raise sturgeon. That concept expanded into using the grounds for education programs year-round.

“Sturgeon City started off as a unique concept because it was a conversion of the former treatment plant into a civic environmental education program,” says J.P. McCann, the center’s executive director.

The old river discharge plant was designed for 4.46 mgd but surpassed that in the 1990s. The new 9 mgd (design) Jacksonville Land Treatment Facility was commissioned in 1998.


Move to remediate

When the new plant went online, city officials debated what to do with the old one. They decided to adaptively reuse it.

Funding for Sturgeon City and its education programs comes from local donors, public groups and agency partners. “There was an initial grant from the Clean Water Management Trust Fund in North Carolina for $572,000 to assist in the remediation of the habitat around the plant,” says McCann.

“Called the Wilson Bay Initiative, that project brought in a lot of student volunteers and community members. Sturgeon City grew out of the experience of students and volunteers working alongside scientists and technicians. It was that dynamic that really seeded the program here on site.”

Plant staff and Jacksonville employees were involved in the Wilson Bay project.

“Water-quality technician Tami Dubois Odum and I worked for North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine and the City of Jacksonville on the restoration of Wilson Bay,” says Pat Donovan-Potts, stormwater manager for the city.


STEAM education

The Sturgeon City center itself opened in 1999, operating out of the administration building on the old treatment plant site. It serves about 6,500 participants annually. “Sturgeon City stands for our accomplishment,” says Donovan-Potts. “It’s important to tell the story of how science and technology are always changing.”

Series of summer institutes are the foundation of programming. All programs include water-quality improvement projects. Institutes focus on enhancing knowledge of science, math, aquaculture, forensics, videography, photography and more. The institutes include:

• Student Leadership Development Institute

• Science Institute

• Advanced Marine Science Institute

• Young Leaders Institute

• Education Institute

• Media Studies Institute

• Engineering & Physics Institute

“Civic environmental education takes whatever we’re doing on the ground and translates that into STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, math) enrichment to the elementary, middle and high school students,” says McCann.

For example, the Student Leadership Development Institute and Young Leaders Institute teach students basic leadership and team building. In one exercise, horse trainers brought horses to the site and divided the students into two groups: one blindfolded and allowed to speak, the other able to see, but not allowed to speak.

Each group had to set up panels into a pen for the horses. The students learned that listening and providing good directions are essential skills for leading a team.

“We need to look at the education program as civic and environmental,” McCann says. “It’s important that students get involved and stay involved in the community.”

In the Science Institute, students get their hands dirty in the marsh, capturing and studying specimens, testing for water-quality parameters and building oyster bags to construct future reefs. “We put adult oysters out in chubs to filter the feed to improve water quality,” says Donovan-Potts. “For the last three years, Tami and I have been putting oyster spat, baby oysters, into drying beds, growing them to adults to be added to the oyster reefs we are building this year. We hope to promote new recruitment and settlement with them.”

Participants also meet with plant staff to get another view of wastewater treatment. “Chief operator Tony Rooks and the operators at the land application site address groups in the education room,” McCann says.

“They go out in the natural lily ponds and do water-quality testing to see the impacts of wastewater on an on-site body of water. Mostly they don’t see any impacts and that’s the whole thrust of it. Through land application, the wastewater goes back into the land, and through absorption it eventually goes back into the aquifer.”


Future plans

The existing wastewater treatment plant infrastructure at Sturgeon City will be reused to better suit future needs. Says McCann: “The old biodigester and methane tank will be used as aquariums. The chlorine contact chamber will become a maze for students. The old headworks will be retained as an instructional tool.”

Clean water awareness is passed on to other generations as students come through the Sturgeon City program. “Educating school-age children about the need for clean water and showing them how a polluted river can be turned around will help spread this knowledge to their friends and parents,” says plant superintendent Ray Holder.

“This knowledge and experience may also act as recruitment for future wastewater professionals.”

Creating an educational environment out of something that easily could have been bulldozed allows a community to prosper. “If it wasn’t for the community support, we wouldn’t be here today,” McCann says. “They’ve been wonderful and they fully support the program. They’ve enabled us to grow.”


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