Milwaukee Opens the Doors on Wastewater

How'd you like 2,100 guests knocking at your door? Well, they were more than welcome at Milwaukee's Jones Island Water Reclamation Facility, which just set an open-house attendance record.
Milwaukee Opens the Doors on Wastewater

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Visiting a water reclamation facility might not be on everyone’s must-see list, which was certainly true for Laurie Beyer. But visiting Milwaukee’s Jones Island Water Reclamation Facility turned out to be a delightful surprise for the Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, resident.

“Everything was done perfectly,” she says. “I loved the way it was laid out.”

Beyer and her husband visited the plant Sept. 19 during Doors Open Milwaukee — an annual weekend event sponsored by Historic Milwaukee Inc. that offers free tours of more than 150 buildings and organizations in the city.

In the past seven years, since the plant has been managed and operated by Veolia North America, more than 20,000 visitors from more than 22 countries have toured the wastewater facility. The historic facility surpassed that mark this year after more than 2,100 visitors attended during Doors Open.

Veolia North America, a provider of environmental solutions and optimized resource management, runs Jones Island as part of its private-public partnership with the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD).

In continuous operation since 1926, Jones Island was designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1974 by the American Society of Civil Engineers in recognition of its innovations in providing high-quality wastewater treatment.

“Jones Island has a great history,” says Joyce Harms, communications and community relations manager at Veolia North America.

And tours have been extremely popular at the site, which is located on the shores of Lake Michigan, underneath a bridge, giving it a bit of intrigue for those who drive by it, she says.

“It’s been here so long in the same place,” she says. “There’s always a mystique about something behind a fence.”

Harms is one of the main organizers behind the Doors Open event at Jones Island. The plant, which can handle 330 mgd, joined the event in 2011.

The first year, unaware of what type of turnout to expect, the plant had 400 visitors, and attendance has grown each year. The second year the facility had 750 visitors, and this year attendance topped 2,100.

“I’m pleased about how we doubled the tours, and we had offsite parking,” says Harms, whose goal was to beef up the plant’s tour program. In addition to the Doors Open event, Harms says about 4,000 people come through the plant each year.

Harms credits the jump in tours to “a really strong stewardship for Lake Michigan for people in the Milwaukee area. People take great pride in the water quality.” She also believes more people are realizing the importance of water treatment plants to metropolitan areas.  

Doors Open event
Jones Island was part of the Doors Open passport program, which asked visitors to get a passport stamped at various tour locations.

“We tried to make it a full experience,” Harms says. “We like to make it worth their trip.”

While Jones Island employs around 160, Harms had about 30 employees — from all aspects of the business — on hand to help with tours, passing out hard hats, talking about processes and helping kids climb on the three large trucks on site.

The event also included a 50- by 70-foot maze in the parking lot, which detailed the trip wastewater takes at the plant. A chalk art wall allowed for scribbling, and visitors could view a nesting box for — and maybe spot — peregrine falcons, in support of the Midwest Peregrine Society.

Inside, attendees visited a historical exhibit created by MMSD and took one of two tours — a shorter “load and go” ride through the facility or a one-hour “hard hat” tour, which also walked through the building that produces Milorganite — a branded fertilizer created from Class A biosolids. Jones Island was one of the first facilities in the world to produce such a product. (And in addition to T-shirts and other swag at the event, Harms says one of the more popular freebies was a 5-pound bag of Milorganite.)

The organization of the entire event impressed Beyer. She and her husband, George, a builder, are both history buffs, and they have attended Doors Open Milwaukee since its inception. Every year, they make a list of their top places to see, and Jones Island was pretty far down the list.

“I’m more of a beautiful church and historic building person,” she says.

But her husband, a Milwaukee native, was more enthusiastic.  

“We kind of had Jones Island on our list for several years and just couldn’t make it over there,” she adds. But she read a Historic Milwaukee newsletter that listed Jones Island as its No. 1 “must see” site, and she also heard it touted on the radio.

Beyer decided to go, somewhat to humor her husband, but she ended up enjoying the experience.

“It’s definitely a must-see,” she says. “It presented itself better than any other place we’ve seen.”


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