Making ‘Lemonade’

A booth at the annual California Lemon Festival helps the Goleta Sanitary District reach the public and build support for its initiatives.
Making ‘Lemonade’
A booth at the annual California Lemon Festival.

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When presented with a bushel of lemons, the crew at the Goleta Sanitary District knows just what to do. The district, a longtime participant in the annual California Lemon Festival, hosts a fun and interactive booth that invites attendees inside the world of wastewater treatment. In essence, they’re making educational lemonade.

The district has operated a booth at the festival since 2001 and, according to Teresa Kistner, industrial waste control officer and de facto marketing director, it’s all part of an effort to shed a bright light on the importance of wastewater treatment.

“Why should wastewater treatment only be in the news when there’s an issue with water quality, or when citizens are upset by their sewer rates increasing?” says Kistner. “Our thought is that if the public knows what we do and who we are, they’ll be on board with the decisions we make and support our role in protecting public health and the environment.”

Pitch and toss

For the first eight Lemon Festivals, the district displayed models and diagrams of treatment plant machinery and showed sterilized samples of wastewater, from influent to final effluent. Attendees asked many questions, which staff members were happy to answer.

They also led a Down the Drain game with pipes for wastewater, treated water and reclaimed water. Visitors tossed lemons into the pipes to win prizes, such as key chains, bottle openers and magnets, printed with the district’s contact information. The staff also invited people to visit the wastewater treatment plant open house, usually held within a couple weeks of the festival.

While the game was fun, Kistner questioned whether a message was getting through. “People had a blast playing the game, but they really weren’t learning anything about wastewater treatment,” she says. “So we went back to the drawing board and came up with the spinning wheel game.”

Recycled content

The spinning wheel, which made its debut in 2009, is made from recycled treatment plant parts. The wheel is a stainless side of a screening/mixing drum from an old belt press. The pole is an old metal fence post, secured into a pulley from an old grit pump. For stability, this heavy wheel is anchored to a base made from a large round drip pan. Surplus bearings and gasket material provide smooth spinning and a means for the wheel to slow and stop on a number.

“It’s really a work of love and ingenuity from our great crew and Jeff Salt, our operations supervisor,” says Kistner.

The face of the wheel is divided into 16 pie pieces, each with questions that quiz attendees on such topics as sustainable practices, wastewater treatment, environmental protection and future wastewater innovations. Visitors spin the wheel, answer the matching question (all answers appear on the displays in the booth), and write their name on a card. A raffle is held every 15 minutes, and the winners receive a KleanKanteen reusable stainless steel water bottle printed with the district’s logo, phone number and Web address.

The game exceeded expectations the first year: In two days, 619 people played, and 62 received water bottles. The booth has remained busy each year and, more important, citizens take home knowledge about the district and why its role in the community is important. “I think the spinning wheel game is much more effective engaging people at the Lemon Festival,” says Kistner. “Many of the people ask follow-up questions or want us to clarify something on one of our displays. That shows us they take interest in what we we’re putting out there.”

While locals are used to the district’s involvement in the festival, tourists and out-of-towners are often surprised to see the wastewater treatment display in among crafts, art and the smorgasbord of foods. “We’ve gotten some puzzled looks over the years, which is to be expected,” says Kistner. “Often those people are extremely interested in what we do once we start talking to them. Many are from other areas of California and are very interested in ways to conserve potable water. We’re all environmentalists at heart, so we love talking about that.”

Out and about

The Lemon Festival is just one part of the district’s outreach. Besides the annual open house, the district regularly invites school groups, service organizations, youth groups and “basically anyone who’s interested” to tour the treatment plant, says Kistner. She and other district employees also make presentations on the treatment process at schools.

“For four years we geared our open house toward kids and decorated our facility for an Environmental Safari adventure to teach about the treatment works,” says Kistner. “We’ve done programs for kids anywhere from kindergarten through college age and have given numerous presentations to commercial and industrial businesses. When someone asks us to do something educational, we make a concerted effort to accommodate.”

Community members aren’t the only ones interested. Kistner has long been involved in the California Water Environment Association, giving presentations on the importance of public outreach. The district has also shared tips with other municipalities, such as the City of Napa Conservation Program, which introduced its own spinning wheel game at the 2011 Napa Earth Day event.

“We enjoy bouncing ideas off others in the industry,” says Kistner. “Any time we can talk to someone from a different municipality about our public outreach and what they’re doing or want to do, I consider it a great opportunity.”

True believers

District staff members are proud of their work and aren’t afraid to let others know. According to Kistner, while no one on staff has formal public relations training, their enthusiasm is easy to see when they interact with the community. “Mine is really a behind-the-scenes job, to implement the pretreatment program, not necessarily community outreach,” she says. “Our staff is full of people who are fun and easy to work with, and they genuinely like talking about what they do. We do it because it creates respect for the industry.”

The benefits for the citizens are twofold. “If people in the community can see what we do, they are more likely to be in our favor when we have to make a decision that affects sewer use fees,” she says. “It’s more than that, though. We want people to know that if they have a problem, there is someone who cares waiting to help.”

Kistner has seen the benefits of the public outreach. The Goleta Sanitary District Governing Board of Directors, along with Salt and Kamil Azoury, general manager/district engineer, have thrown their support behind the initiative, allowing staff members the time and resources they need to educate the public. “This is one of those industries where it is truly out of sight, out of mind,” says Kistner. “The sewers are all underground, so people take them for granted. We want to bring them to the forefront.”   


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