Milwaukee's Wastewater Plant Is City's Hippest Tourist Attraction

The Jones Island Water Reclamation Facility has logged more than 20,000 visitors as part of Historic Milwaukee’s Doors Open program.
Milwaukee's Wastewater Plant Is City's Hippest Tourist Attraction
The Jones Island plant on the shore of Lake Michigan provides a key stop for Doors Open Milwaukee tours. Visitors learn the importance of wastewater treatment.

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In Milwaukee, you can explore motorcycle history at the Harley-Davidson Museum. And catch a ball game at Miller Park. And then tour one of the city’s wastewater treatment plants. Seriously!

The city’s Jones Island Water Reclamation Facility is creeping up the rankings as more people learn about its historic significance and the roles it plays daily in protecting the health and environment in Wisconsin’s largest city.

The plant hit the milestone of hosting 20,000 visitors during a recent annual tour that offers a close-up view of the wastewater treatment process.

“I think part of the allure is that you are seeing a process that is typically behind closed doors,” says Joyce Harms, community relations manager with Veolia Water Milwaukee, which operates and maintains the plant under contract with the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District.

“That mysterious context, combined with a high level of stewardship toward Lake Michigan from the people of this area, brings people out and has them asking questions.”

A day of education

During Historic Milwaukee’s Doors Open tour on Sept. 22, more than 2,100 visitors walked through the reclamation facility, which has been in operation since 1926 and was designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1974 by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

“The tour program at Jones Island is certainly the cornerstone of our outreach,” says Harms. “The annual Doors Open event is a great way to showcase our high standards for water reclamation. It is a lot of work for our staff but also one of our favorite days of the year, because it lets visitors see just how important the facility is while learning something about modern wastewater treatment.”

The plant, on the shore of Lake Michigan, presents a unique backdrop for the Doors Open program and for the many visitors who have toured the facility over the years. The site was previously home to a small, ramshackle village for commercial fishermen, and many Milwaukee residents can trace their lineage to those who lived or worked on the island.

Site of innovations

“A century ago, fishing was a huge part of the city’s economy,” says Harms. “Milwaukee has always been a city built around the water, and Jones Island has always been pretty much in the center of it.”

The plant’s landmark designation recognizes its innovations. For one thing, Jones Island was one of the first facilities in the world to produce a marketable fertilizer — named Milorganite — from wastewater treatment solids. Says Harms, “This facility has been on the cutting edge of some pretty major advances within the industry. They were green here before it was cool.”

Last year, facility employees and dozens of other volunteers provided two tour options: a 30-minute guided bus tour that hit on the main points of the treatment process and the site’s historical significance, and an hour-long hard-hat version that also included a walking tour of the plant and an inside look at the Milorganite process.

Other attractions included a historical exhibit, an electron microscope demonstration, a large machinery display, and a wastewater-themed maze for younger participants. “The goal was to have an event that appealed to all ages,” says Harms. “The people were excited, and many told us they planned on coming back next year.”

Getting the word out

Doors Open is not the only time Veolia provides tours. Since the company started operating Jones Island seven years ago, more than 20,000 visitors from 22 countries have toured the facility. According to Harms, more than 4,000 people tour it each year now.

“When Veolia came on board, one of our big goals was to help demystify the wastewater treatment side of the water cycle,” says Harms. “In just the few years we’ve participated in the Doors Open event, we’ve seen our visitor numbers grow from 400 the first year to more than 2,000. We’re enthused with the results.”

Besides facility tours, Veolia works with Milwaukee area technical schools and high schools on a career development program that urges students to consider water science as a career path. There’s also a Water Box program for elementary schools that gives teachers a kit of 20 water-themed science experiments that children can easily perform.

“We want young people to know how water touches them throughout their schooling,” says Harms. “We feel that’s why it’s so important to offer programs aimed at different age groups. You never want students to lose sight of the importance of water.”

Feeding curiosity

That’s why Harms encourages other treatment plants to open their doors. While they may not be typical tourist destinations, treatment facilities often have strong historical backgrounds. “People are curious, so if you open your doors and let them in, they’ll show up just to scratch that itch,” says Harms.

“The key is to make your program inviting and interesting. If it’s good, more will come. Take pride in what you’re doing and talk about it in a way that a regular person can understand. It’s all about making outreach accessible.”


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