On A Mission

The water and wastewater treatment plant staffs in Wyoming, Mich., deliver a consistent message about water’s importance to environment and economy.
On A Mission
Wyoming Clean Water Plant staff members visit schools to work directly with students. Here, fifth-graders work on a watershed education project.

When is the last time someone asked you how much water it took to manufacture the chair you sit on? Or the cheese you enjoyed on your sandwich?
These are a few of the questions water utility staff members in Wyoming, Mich., pose to tour groups. The goal is to emphasize how water helps communities thrive and the importance of clean water to economic growth. It’s part of a public education that reaches multiple levels, from third grade to college graduates and beyond.

Two Decades Education

Wyoming (population 73,000), the largest suburb of Grand Rapids, lies in what was once known as the Manufacturing Belt. In 1966, the city began sourcing its water from the Lake Michigan Water Supply System, but business and population growth soon pushed demand beyond capacity. The system was expanded in 1973 and throughout the 1990s.

Wyoming’s first water and wastewater treatment plant tours 20 years ago were led by then-superintendent Dan Wolz, who had a passion for connecting with kids. “Dan saw the value in bringing science to area kids, especially environment and conservation issues, in an easily understood way,” recalls Myron Erickson, P.E., now Clean Water Plant superintendent. At the program’s peak, the outreach program reached some 1,200 students a year.

“Unfortunately, like many other municipalities, we’ve had to consolidate operations and staff and figure out how to do more with less,” Erickson says. “We cut back on plant tours to about 10 or 12 a year. But that’s still a couple hundred visitors every year, from third graders to graduate students. There are no better examples of applied science than can be seen at our Drinking Water and Clean Water plant tours.”

Visitors observe how water moves through each plant. Handouts include literature available from the AWWA, the Water Environment Federation and the U.S. EPA. Engineering students from area colleges and universities come to learn about plant design and mechanics; biology and chemistry students see the biochemical side of water treatment; and nursing students learn about the importance of protecting public health.

Economic Benefits

Regardless of visitors’ age or education, the department delivers the same basic message. “While environmental resources afford us many benefits, from health to recreation, we still need economic activity for communities to thrive,” Erickson explains. “But if you conduct economic activity at the expense of the environment, sooner or later everyone suffers. Drinking water and wastewater treatment plants facilitate economic activity with the goal of protecting the environment and ensuring that clean water is available for all needs for generations to come.”

Everyone leaves the plants with new awareness of how important water treatment is to society. “At the start of every tour, we try to surprise attendees by pointing out items — food, chairs, clothing — that require water to produce,” says Erickson. “Then we explain how that water was sourced and what it takes to get it back into the environment.”

Another aspect of the utility’s outreach is internships. “We bring in engineering and nonengineering college students to teach them about an important function and interest them in a water management career,” Erickson says. He works with schools that offer water treatment associate degrees requiring internships. In 2012, Wyoming’s two interns were newly graduated mechanical and civil engineers.

“It was the perfect pairing of their experience with our own,” Erickson says. “We’ve already implemented some of their recommendations from an energy audit they conducted and will eventually move forward with some of their long-term ideas, too.”

Final Goal

Erickson points out that water utilities tend to operate under the radar of public awareness. Drinking water facilities may not be near the city center; wastewater treatment plants are often on city outskirts near the receiving stream. Water utilities aren’t at the top of employment opportunity lists, either.

“Unfortunately, actively promoting water careers isn’t a focus for us any longer, but the critical need to educate all ages about the importance of water to society and the environment, and the need for water conservation, will never change,” says Erickson. “My goal is for everyone who comes for a tour to be able to explain to anyone else, in everyday language, the purpose of these plants and how they function, and also their importance to our economy. And most people leave able to do that.”


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