The Nitty-Gritty of Treatment Plant Tours

Wastewater plant tours are an essential part of any public education program. Here, a few insights from those behind the process.

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Touring a water or wastewater plant might not be what you'd consider a “vacation destination.” However, there are plenty of people — from curious grade schoolers to college students to elected officials — interested in where water comes from and where waste goes.

Although water treatment and wastewater facilities tours are nothing new, tours have become a valuable learning tool and networking opportunity for facilities around the country. Water is, after all, what some in the industry consider “the issue du jour.”

Pride and … poop
“The water cycle is something people don’t often understand,” says John Gonzalez, manager of communications for Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, which operates three wastewater treatment plants in the Cleveland area.

NEORSD offers tours in the warmer months and holds an open house each September. Gonzalez says visitors often want to know if the water is safe to drink and, of course, they ask all-too-common questions about, well, the waste.

“The word poop comes up all of the time, especially with school tours,” says Gonzalez. “We will use that humor to connect with them.”

Kelley Dearing Smith, strategic communications and government relations director at Louisville Water, can relate.

“We have a very robust education program. (We bring through) about 10,000 students a year during field trips. When they take the kids on the tour of the gatehouse, there are usually ducks in the water at the reservoir. (The kids will ask), ‘If a duck poops in the water, do I drink it?’”

Potty talk aside, the tours provide valuable information about one of the world’s most precious resources.

“Fundamentally, you can’t expect your customers to understand the process unless you show them the process,” says Dearing Smith. “So many people think water magically appears in their faucet. You have to open your facilities; you have to show the innovation behind what you do.”

For more than 20 years, visitors have toured Louisville Water’s historic facility, which dates to 1860. Its pumping station is a national historic landmark, and Dearing Smith says the tours are “one of the most popular walking tours in Louisville.”

The city’s original 1860 pumping station is now home to the Waterworks museum. The current pumping station dates to 1919 and still has a non-operational 1919 Allis-Chalmers steam engine.

“We use our tours to illustrate how Louisville Water is a lifeline for the community,” says Dearing Smith. “We make a connection to the whole city. (Water is) more than just doing the laundry or making a cup of coffee.”

At Louisville Water, which has two treatment plants, the tours are often extravagant. Last year, the utility organized Trick or Treatment — a Halloween-themed tour that took advantage of the building’s Gothic appearance. “People are fascinated by that structure,” says Dearing Smith.

At the event, educators dressed as mad scientists; and the utility’s water mascot dressed as a zombie.

“It was such a popular event,” says Dearing Smith, noting that more than 500 people attended. “We were floored.”

Water is water
Milwaukee is another municipality with a passion for water. After all, the city is home to the Global Water Center, which houses many water-related research and development entities. The “great city on a Great Lake” includes two wastewater facilities — Jones Island (330 mgd) and South Shore (300 mgd). Most tours are held at the Jones Island facility, which produces Milorganite, a Class A biosolids.

Since 2008, Veolia Water has operated the facilities for the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewer District (MMSD), and has given tours to more than 23,000 people. Many of those visitors come during the city’s annual Doors Open Milwaukee event.

“When we first started in 2008, the percentages tended to be higher for grade and middle school groups,” says Joyce Harms, communications and community relations manager at Veolia Water. “Over the years, what has really developed has been the professional groups as well as college-level environmental and engineering students.”

Harms says one of the more unusual tour groups she has had come through are students in the hospitality program at Milwaukee Area Technical College. The professor told her, “If these students are going to run restaurants, hotels, spas, they need to know the infrastructure.”

“I thought that was a very enlightened viewpoint,” Harms says.

The greatest challenge of public tours might be that wastewater facilities have to take technical information and make it relatable to the general public.

Spartanburg Water in South Carolina accomplishes that by holding a citizens’ academy, called Water Matters. The educational event is held every fall and covers topics from customer service to hydroelectric power.

It might be a small point, but at Louisville Water, bottled water is not offered on tours. Instead, staff members offer Louisville Pure Tap — the utility’s trademarked tap water — to emphasize what they do.

“That’s part of the education; make sure you have water available; they’ve got to taste it,” says Dearing Smith.

Tasting, touching, seeing — all important parts of teaching children and adults the importance of the water cycle and what goes into it.

As Dearing Smith so aptly puts it, a lot of people take water for granted. “How can people appreciate something that they always have?”

Top 4 Questions Heard During a Tour

A lot of interesting comments get tossed around during a treatment plant tour. Here are a few of our favorites:

  • Mike Russell, lead operator at Spartanburg Water, says, “I’ve gotten all kinds of questions, (such as) ‘How deep is this tank? Has anyone ever fallen in?”
  • Russell, who conducts most of the tours at the 25 mgd Fairforest Treatment Plant, says younger children want to know “how to separate the poop from the pee.” “If you look at the system from the eyes of a younger person, it looks like we have separated it,” he says. “One particular child wanted to know if he could see his particular poop.”
  • Kelley Dearing Smith at Louisville Water says kids often confuse the water plant with the wastewater treatment plant. Among the more interesting questions she has fielded is “Are there fish in my faucet?” and, the perennial tour question of children no matter what the profession, “How much money do you make?”
  • The most unusual item ever recovered from the treatment plant in Milwaukee, as far as Joyce Harms can recall, was a bowling ball. While she wondered how it ended up there, she found it particularly appropriate, considering Milwaukee was home to the American Bowling Congress. 


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