Treatment Plant Gives Tours to 700 Students in 2 Days

A California sanitary district hosted some 700 students and chaperones in two days as part of the local school district’s Science Education Week.
Treatment Plant Gives Tours to 700 Students in 2 Days
Students from Delta Vista Middle School sixth-grade class toured the Ironhouse Sanitary District Water Recycling Facility last March.

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Treating and recycling 4.3 mgd is routine business for the Ironhouse Sanitary District. Giving plant tours to 700 sixth-graders and chaperones in two days certainly is not.

The Water Recycling Facility staff pulled it off in March 2016 in an event billed, “It’s a School Tour Like Never Before.” Held as part of the Oakley School District’s Science Education Week, the tours involved Delta Vista and O’Hara Park middle schools and included nearly all 11- and 12-year-olds in the district’s service area.

Students learned about the water recycling process, uses for recycled water, public health and environmental protection, and more. After the tour, teachers received instructional materials to use back in their classrooms.

The tour earned the district an Excellence in Public Education and Outreach Award from the California Association of Sanitation Agencies. “It’s great to get so much recognition for the hard work we are doing to educate our community,” says Chad Davisson, general manager.

Modern facility

The Ironhouse district serves an area about 90 miles west of San Francisco. Its $54.5 million water recycling facility, commissioned in October 2011, has room for expansion to 6.8 mgd.

The tour days grew out of the school system’s established science program. For the past 15 years, the schools had sponsored a one-week camping program to give sixth-graders a science experience in a nature setting.

“The place they took them to was a 2 1/2-hour drive,” says Roni Gehlke, public education and outreach consultant for the Ironhouse district. “Unfortunately, over time the cost became too much for the parents and the schools to bear, and they had to cancel it.”

Harvey Yurkovich, principal at Delta Vista Middle School, contacted Gehlke to inquire about working on an alternative program. They started planning in summer 2015 for a two-day experience to include a tour of the Water Recycling Facility and day at nearby Bigbreak Regional Shoreline Park.

“On the first day, one school came to our facility while the other went to the park,” says Gehlke. “On the second day, we switched. The focus throughout was on clean water.” Teachers and principals came in ahead of time for facility tours; the teachers then prepared the kids with lessons about the water recycling facility and its processes.

Doing it wholesale

The tour logistics were challenging; the solution was creative. Since the facility opened, the district had offered hayride tours of the grounds. The school tours combined hayrides with visits inside the buildings to observe the key processes.

Groups of 28 kids at a time, with teachers and parent chaperones, walked the mile-and-a-half from their schools to the plant site, where they boarded the hay wagon to begin 45-minute tours.

“We had somebody from each school at the pickup sites with cellphones making sure all the kids were arriving on time,” Gehlke says. “Everything worked very smoothly.”

Because two days of tours would have taken too much time from facility operators’ work, the district brought in as tour guides four students from the Bay Area Consortium of Water and Wastewater Education (BACWWE), a partnership of clean-water agencies and Solano Community College that aims to educate a new generation of operators.

The BACWWE students toured the Ironhouse facility and then staffed tour stops focused on aeration, microfiltration, UV disinfection and biosolids processing. Gehlke provided them with scripts containing information the teachers wanted the kids to learn. The kids saw samples of dried biosolids and were allowed to touch a sample of filtration membrane.

Not just a lark

“The kids asked great questions — things we weren’t expecting to hear from that level,” says Gehlke. “They asked what kind of bacteria we use for treatment. Some wanted to know what exactly the membranes were made of.”

Each child had a journal in which to take notes about the visit to be used later in writing a report. “This wasn’t just a made-for-fun event,” says Gehlke. “The principals and teachers wanted to make sure it was educational because wastewater is among the things they talk about in the sixth-grade curriculum.”

The kids also received a question-and-answer sheet, a short write-up on filtration, and pictures of the plant, along with items such as puzzles and word searches, which some teachers let the students use for extra credit.

All in all, the event was a hit with the kids, and the school system will repeat it this year during the week of Earth Day (April 22). “The teachers appreciated it,” Gehlke says. “I think the fact they’re doing it again shows it worked for them. If they thought the kids didn’t get something out of it, they wouldn’t be coming back this year.”

Part of the plan

The tour program fit perfectly with the Ironhouse district’s outreach mission. “In California, water issues are really paramount,” says Davisson. “We want to be influential in shaping the next generation so they understand the importance of water sustainability and how our services can help with that.

“It’s exciting to reach kids at an age when they’re just beginning to gain an awareness of environmental issues and start impressing on them the importance of reuse and responsibility, so that it becomes second nature to them. It goes beyond giving tours and into supporting the schools so that they can take information back and incorporate it into their lesson plans.”

Gehlke adds, “It was great to work with the schools and provide an opportunity for the kids to walk through and see what we do. We’re a small district. Our experience shows that there are ways for districts our size to accomplish tours like these.”

It’s environmental education — not one, not 10, but 700 students at a time.

Recycling in action

The kids who toured the Ironhouse Sanitary District Water Recycling Facility got to watch trucks filling up at one of the district’s two recycled water fill stations.

In 2015, the district opened a fill station where commercial users can receive water for purposes like construction grading and compaction, and landscape irrigation. On the tour days, trucks were picking up water for dust control on a freeway construction project in the area.

The other fill station lets residents tap into recycled water at no charge to irrigate their lawns, plants, trees and gardens.


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