Rain to Drain Program Tells the Tale of Water

San Antonio’s water education program takes participants on in-depth exploration of every chapter in the story of water.
Rain to Drain Program Tells the Tale of Water
Greg Wukasch, right, explains how water samples are taken at San Antonio’s Maltsberger Pump Station.

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Most of us don’t think about water much when we use it. We turn on the faucet and clean water is right there. We flush the toilet, and the used water is gone.
But an outreach program by San Antonio Water System (SAWS) brings the story of water to the forefront. The free Rain to Drain tour is offered nine times a year. Greg Wukasch, a SAWS education coordinator and the brains behind the program, says the aim is to offer more than a typical treatment plant tour.

“The wastewater and potable water treatment plants are certainly a big part of the water cycle in San Antonio, but they are only a couple of the chapters in the book,” he says. “You have to read each chapter to tell the whole story.”

Geared to grown-ups

Each daylong tour (breakfast and lunch provided) buses a preregistered group to three locations: Stone Oak Parkway where water floods into caves that go directly into the Edwards Aquifer, Maltsberger Pump Station where drinking water is stored and treated, and Dos Rios Water Recycling Center.

The tour program, in its fourth year as part of the utility’s education process, offers an inside look at resource management, walking observers step by step through the process water takes from the time it falls as rain through final effluent treatment and release back to area waterways.

“When they begin the day, water is out of sight and out of mind for most participants,” says Wukasch. “When the day is done, they get off the bus and tell us how they had no idea what actually went into their water system.”

Most of the system’s educational programming targets youth — education specialists offer sessions to elementary, middle and high school students. Rain to Drain is geared toward adults in the SAWS service area.

“It really evolved from a program aimed at high school students to one that encourages adults to learn about and question where their water comes,” says Lynne Christopher, another education coordinator. “The high school students were interested, but we found it was their teachers who became especially engrossed in the process. That made us think, ‘Hey, maybe this would work for adults, too.’”

All aspects

Tours begin in the customer service center at the SAWS central office, where Wukasch and Christopher give a short introduction. SAWS serves customers in four ways: water, wastewater, water recycling, and heating and cooling. The system has 144 million gallons of water in storage and 10,000 miles of water, sewer and recycled water pipes. Wukasch and Christopher explain in detail the drainage, recharge and artesian zones.

The next stops are two caves in the parkway where water goes straight into the aquifer when it rains. The bus then shuttles the group to the Maltsberger Pump Station, where enormous storage tanks suspended overhead provide a setting for a discussion about potable water. Large tan pipes come up from the ground, extracting water from artesian wells and treating it with chlorine and fluoride.

The final stop is at the Dos Rios plant, which uses a pure oxygen aeration process. Biosolids are made into landscaping compost, and biogas is treated and delivered to a natural gas company pipeline.

Lessons from Disney

“We’ve done a lot of work to adapt the program,” says Wukasch. “Lynne and I took separate family trips to Disney World a few years ago and found ourselves taking notes on how we could ‘Disney-fy’ our tours. We added logos, video components, interactive exercises and excitement to it. It really plays out like a storybook now and keeps everyone entertained.”

Last year San Antonio began a campaign to explain an increase in utility rates slated for early 2016. The increase will fund infrastructure improvements and capital projects that include installing new technology for the water and wastewater treatment systems.

Wukasch led public meetings on the increases at several city libraries and found attendees enthusiastic about the city’s water system and mostly agreeable to higher rates. Many had taken Rain to Drain tours.

“Those meetings were really the best advertising we ever could have done for our utility, mainly because so many people came just to thank us for Rain to Drain,” says Wukasch. “After that, it got to the point where every time we opened up tour sign-up, they would book up in less than a day.”

Looking to grow

Christopher hopes to expand the program in the coming year. Plans are underway to offer abbreviated and niche tours for the city’s elected officials and employees. She has reached out to civic organizations and young leadership groups to get more people on board. While the program is more labor intensive than coordinating plant tours, Christopher encourages other municipalities to consider outreach programs that tell the entire story behind their water.

“Taking a tour of the wastewater plant is certainly worthwhile and educational, but it’s important to remember that it’s only part of the story,” she says. “We’ve found a lot of people who are very excited to read the whole thing, cover to cover.”


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