What Kind of Plants Are They - Really?

What’s the best way to brand the facilities that handle our communities’ wastewater and keep our lakes and rivers safe, clean and healthy?

Years ago we called them sewage treatment plants. Today more often we call them wastewater treatment plants, water pollution control facilities or water reclamation plants. Now there are those (and I include myself) who would like to see at least some of these names revisited.

Some (and I am in this camp) say they should be called “clean-water plants.” The Water Environment Federation (WEF), in its official communications, calls them “water resource recovery facilities.” Both approaches have merit. I wonder what you think.

Why Change?

Before we look at the arguments, we must answer: Why change at all? Wastewater treatment is a proud profession — why run away from the name

Well, because to the public the word “wastewater” (or “sewage”) has unpleasant connotations. In a small way it diminishes the profession because it focuses on the ugly raw material that comes in rather than the wonderful product that comes out.

Think for a minute. What if places out in the country that produce wholesome milk were called “manure processing facilities”? After all, manure is what sets everything in motion — nourishes the crops that feed the cows that make the milk. In reality, we call these places “dairy farms,” and when we hear the words we think milk, butter, cheese, ice cream — the end products.

So, isn’t it more fitting — and more accurate — to call treatment plants something that evokes positive images? Of fishing, swimming, canoeing, pleasant beaches, sunsets on water? Of the end product?

Whither The Brand

So if you buy that reasoning (and I know some would rather not), what should we call these facilities? Clean-water plants? Water resource recovery facilities? Or something else altogether?

“Clean-water plant” is simple and straight to the point. Clean water is something the public understands and treasures. It immediately evokes positive images — of the facility, its purpose and the people who work there.

There are two issues, though, with this name. First, as some operators have pointed out to me, “clean water” may create confusion with “drinking water.” It’s a point well taken, although I believe it’s a solvable problem. In the proper context, talking about the downstream side of the urban water cycle, there should be little or no confusion.

Second — and this is trickier — “clean water” does not recognize fully what these facilities do. And that’s the reasoning behind the WEF’s preferred term. The plants clean up water, yes, but they also extract energy from it (as digester methane) and separate out nutrients (as biosolids in various forms) for beneficial uses.

So, the term “water resource recovery facility” is more inclusive and technically more precise than “clean-water plant.” It also speaks more broadly to the knowledge, skills and sophistication operators bring to work every day.

What’s the downside to “water resource recovery facility”? It’s a mouthful, and it has a bureaucratic tone. Perhaps more important, what does it mean at first blush to people on the street? My bet is it would take some explaining — quite a bit, actually — before the average person would grasp it.

Now, Your Turn

So, which way to go? I prefer “clean-water plant.” Everyone can immediately understand it. Operators can easily take pride in it. The business is really about clean water (that’s why we had the Clean Water Act). While the energy and nutrients are great, they are byproducts.

But, my opinion isn’t the one that counts. Yours is. So, tell us what you prefer. Either of these names? Something different? Or stay with the status quo? Tell why you feel as you do. Send me a note to editor@tpomag.com. I promise to respond, and we will publish as many comments as possible in an upcoming issue.

I look forward to a lively discussion.   


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