How One Plant Uses Paint to Change Public Perception

Murals on Livermore’s wastewater treatment facilities remind residents that they have a direct connection with the ocean and its marine life.
How One Plant Uses Paint to Change Public Perception
All four sides of the solids handling building show whales. A sandy ocean floor with coral outbreaks can be seen at ground level.

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Each year from spring through autumn, migrating humpback and California gray whales are a major attraction in coastline waters near San Francisco Bay, which is also the receiving water for the city of Livermore Water Reclamation Plant.

All year long, the likenesses of those whales can be seen on the disinfection buildings of the plant (8.5 mgd design capacity) at the discharge near the Bay’s eastern shore, 16 miles from the plant proper.

Huge murals of humpbacks, gray whales, dolphins and other ocean creatures cover the entire walls of the concrete structures. They were painted by Livermore’s director of Public Works, Darren Greenwood. “It’s a great location for the murals because they can be seen by airline passengers on the final approach into the Oakland Airport,” says Greenwood. “They’re also seen by hikers and bikers on the San Francisco Bay Trail, which passes right in front.”

Ambitious project

Greenwood has painted similar total-wall murals with the same theme on three buildings at the pumping station that pushes effluent from the Livermore plant over the coastal mountains on its journey to the deep-water discharge in the bay. He has also painted a mural on a neighboring utility’s 60-foot-tall surge tank.

But the murals seen by the greatest number of passersby are the first ones he painted, on two digester buildings and a solids handling building at the water treatment facility. “Like many treatment plants around the country that were built out in the boondocks, the city has grown and is now our neighbor,” Greenwood says. “People in thousands of cars that pass near the plant each day on two major highways can see the murals.”

Those were painted in two phases. In 2007, the city provided the paint and Greenwood donated his time to paint the actual-scale murals on two walls of the digesters, which are more than 40 feet wide and 70 feet long. The other two murals were completed in 2010 with the help of a grant he received from the city’s public art commission.

“I chose the marine mammal theme to remind people they have a direct connection to the ocean through their local wastewater treatment plant,” says Greenwood.

Sending a message

Public education is important to Greenwood and the plant team. Operations staff members use the murals as a big draw for the hundreds of students and residents who tour the plant each year. “It’s the clearest way for talking to the kids about not putting things down the drain,” says Greenwood. “They get the message when they see that we discharge out in the ocean where the dolphins and whales live.”

Public reception to the murals has been astounding, Greenwood says. An open house held after the first murals were completed drew more than 800 people. One citizen sent cookies to the plant at Christmas with a card saying, “Thanks for the whales.” People have called and asked whether the plant was an aquarium.

“It changes the perception and gets you a lot of goodwill,” says Greenwood. More than half of the activated sludge facility’s average flow of 7 mgd is recycled and used for irrigating a golf course and the landscaping at the nearby airport and shopping center. Some is stored for use in fire protection systems.

A portion of the recycled water is used in a fountain to cascade down a waterfall that is in the background of the plant’s entranceway sign. The water feature and sign were built on the corner of the plant site to finish off an intersection that is a heavily traveled gateway to the airport and a shopping center.

Greenwood’s career with the city started in the lab and grew to include public education through art in the community, and especially the schools. He says every agency will eventually have a spill or something beyond control go wrong.

When that happens to his agency, the public will be tempted to think someone messed up and is not doing their job. But if the plant already has a good reputation, the public is more likely to think the good people who clean the water to save the whales are just having a bad day.
Says Greenwood, “I think that’s what this is buying us.”


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