They Fit an Interactive Museum in this Virginia Laboratory

A new education center in Virginia’s Prince William County includes a spacious laboratory with windows that let visitors watch technicians do their work.
They Fit an Interactive Museum in this Virginia Laboratory
All testing is done behind large glass windows so that visitors can observe.

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Working in a water and wastewater lab can be a lonely task. That isn’t the case in Virginia’s Prince William County, where a new education center gives visitors an up-close look at the laboratory and tells how the county gets and treats its water.

The Durward E. Grubbs Environmental Education Center, which opened in October 2015 at the H.L. Mooney Advanced Water Reclamation Facility, is roughly two-thirds lab space and one-third interactive museum. The aim is to show how water flows from the Potomac River to the tap and back again.

“The facility actually serves two purposes,” says Marlo Thomas-Watson, Prince William County Service Authority community relations manager. “We needed to upgrade our lab, and our governing board felt it was appropriate to have a wing of the facility devoted to public outreach. Allowing people to learn about what we do is important, especially when it comes to making decisions for infrastructure upgrades.”

The center is named for Durward E. Grubbs Jr., a founding member and former chairman of the authority’s board of directors and a champion of public education.

Watchful eyes

The reclamation facility processes roughly 24 mgd. Daily testing is performed in the Grubbs Center’s state-of-the-art, 6,200-square-foot laboratory. A team of 15 technicians constantly monitors chlorine, bacteria, coliform, total phosphorus, BOD and other parameters. In the event of a ruptured water main, the lab tests water from the affected site to ensure that it is safe to drink after the break is repaired.

Mary Eure, lab supervisor, says the new facility enables her staff to better serve the community. “More than 5,000 water-quality tests are performed in our new lab each month,” she says.

“It replaces our 1,000- square-foot lab, where our technicians worked in tight space and the volume of work often made it difficult.”

Visitors to the Grubbs Center can watch lab technicians at work through large windows. While staff members had to adjust to working in front of an audience, they now appreciate the interest visitors take. Many have found ways to interact with visitors.

“It was a little odd having people watching us work at the beginning, but you get used to it pretty quick,” Eure says. “The people always have a lot of great questions, and many take a genuine interest in what we’re doing.”

The larger facility also enables the lab staff to offer commercial testing. Neighboring agencies, companies and homeowners with wells can have their water tested. “There’s no way we could have taken on that additional work in our old space,” says Eure. “The ability to add revenue and offer additional services has been terrific.”

Making a connection

Seeing science in action is only part of the experience. Interactive displays, light-up maps, backlit photographs, and life-size pipes show how water is withdrawn from the Potomac River, treated, sent to customers’ taps, treated as wastewater and returned to the river. A map on the wall shows the county’s drinking water sources. A large aquarium is home to fish native to the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay.

“People tend to misunderstand how complicated the treatment process actually is from start to finish,” says Thomas-Watson. “People are in awe of what they learn.”

Exhibits also include a graph showing the gallons of water used daily and a history lesson on pipes, sewers and the wastewater process. A large ceiling display shows blown-up microbes that are key to the treatment process.

“People are taken aback to find out that the average shower uses 25 gallons of water,” says Thomas-Watson. “They are surprised to see how many steps we’ve taken in updating the purification process over the last century. We show them the wooden pipes that sewage used to run through before it was discharged, untreated, into the river. We’ve come a long way.”

The center’s halls are often filled with students. Teaching children and educators about how water comes to their homes is a priority of the center. Requests for reclamation facility tours have multiplied tenfold since the center opened. “We use a lot of state-of-the-art equipment in our treatment processes that people learn about in the educational center and want to learn more about,” says Thomas-Watson. “Being able to see the process in action is very valuable.”

Setting an example

The authority’s board of directors fully supported the education component of the Grubbs Center. The authority strives to be an open, high-performing utility, and that mission includes educating customers, according to spokesperson Kipp Hanley.

“Operating in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed means adhering to extremely high environmental standards, which we have accomplished with seven straight years of perfect compliance at our H.L. Mooney Advanced Water Reclamation Facility,” says Hanley. “Fish come right up to our plant outfall to take advantage of the clean, oxygenated waters that flow into Neabsco Creek.”

Hanley encourages all water and wastewater agencies to get their publics involved and informed. “We’ve found that an educated customer is typically a happy customer,” he says. “Once they realize the importance of what we’re doing and the role they can play in the process, they are more likely to support facility and technology upgrades that we undertake to ensure our customers are receiving clean water and world-class service.”



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