A Work of Public Art Pays Homage to a Former Treatment Plant Leader Who Had a Vision

A mural inspired by a former Santa Cruz treatment plant superintendent has had a big impact on staff morale and community appreciation

A Work of Public Art Pays Homage to a Former Treatment Plant Leader Who Had a Vision

Mark Dettle, Santa Cruz Public Works director, points to the image of Dan Seidel, retired plant superintendent, whose image appears in the painted fish that is part of the mural.

Fulfilling a long-held dream of a retired wastewater treatment plant superintendent, a large mural in the California city of Santa Cruz greets visitors at the plant entranceway to the 17 mgd tertiary treatment facility.

Featuring ocean and estuary animals typical of the oceanside community of 64,000, the mural at the Santa Cruz Wastewater Treatment Plant was created along nearly 400 feet of sloping driveway walls that lead from the entry gate to the plant. Some walls reach 24 feet high.

Completed in 2018 by local artist Elijah Pfotenhauer, the mural presents blue whales, a giant red octopus, coho salmon, egrets and other creatures in graphical and whimsical form. One image contains a cameolike appearance of Dan Seidel, honoring the past superintendent for his 40-year career with the city.

By projection

“For a long time, Dan wanted the wall to be softened and more welcoming,” says Mike Sanders, plant manager. “Several times he shared his dream with me, and I liked it, but we couldn’t get the funding for a mural.”

The artist completed the mural project in consultation with plant staff. Tom Pretzer, plant maintenance supervisor, assisted with on-site needs. Prep work on the concrete sectional wall included power washing and crack sealing. The surface was primed with Rust-Oleum concrete stain spray and Sherwin-Williams moisture blocker paint.

Over five weeks, working on a scissors lift, Pfotenhauer created the mural using cans of Montana Colors’ Hardcore aerosol high-pressure spray paint. The images were projected onto the walls at night to enable Pfotenhauer to outline the areas to be painted during the day. The dappled water shadows on the blue whales were created with brushes immediately after spraying. Because the mural is not normally accessible to the public, no protective coating was applied.

Making it visible

The mural design was intended to underscore the plant’s environmentally friendly process. Several sections of the 8-foot-tall metal security fence mounted on top of the concrete walls were removed to make the mural more visible.

“While considering the prime issues of security and safety foremost, some of the slats in the latticework of the top fence were able to be removed so the public could see the mural from the Neary Lagoon Park,” Sanders says. The park is an 850-acre wildlife refuge next to the facility that includes hiking and biking trails, playgrounds, athletic fields, picnic areas and tennis courts. A parking area shares the entryway access road.

“The murals will surely delight Rail Trail users and anyone visiting the wastewater treatment facility,” says Janice Bisgaard, city community relations specialist. The treatment plant entrance is next to the soon-to-be constructed Coastal Rail Trail, a multiuse trail that parallels an unused railroad track and runs the length of Santa Cruz County.

Public art

The mural was a project of the seven-member Santa Cruz Arts Commission, and the $20,000 cost was funded through the city’s 1% for Art Program. One percent of the capital projects’ cost is designated to the arts. The commission chose the artist for his expertise in portraying ocean and estuary animals.

Near the end of the project, the treatment plant became the finish line for more than 200 community members in a uniquely humorous and educational 5K walk called Follow the Flush. Developed by affiliates of the University of California, Santa Cruz and the regional arts community, the walk followed the approximate path that human waste travels in underground infrastructure to the award-winning treatment facility.

Along the way, 20 informational kiosks, interactive art exhibits and games became part of the journey to raise awareness of the water footprint, sustainability and the psychological dimensions of modern human waste sanitation. All event participants were entered into a prize raffle. Bisgaard says kids had fun looking for the “Dan Seidel Fish” hidden in the artwork. A plant tour conducted by operators and staff was a grand finale.

Making a difference

“Dan wasn’t aware of his likeness in the mural,” Sanders says. “When he found out, he was really excited and appreciative.” Unintended but welcome consequences of the mural are the positive impact and influence it is having on the community. The public loves it, the vendors love it and the staff loves it.

“Most of the staff have embraced it as a positive way in which they view their job,” Sanders says. “It’s uplifting. Its impact has been significant, and it’s all because of a dream fulfilled.”


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