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not your typical water park

Some kids go to Wisconsin Dells to ride the water slides. Others take an afternoon to consider where things go when you flush them down the toilet, where our drinking water comes from, and how these water systems work together. This past week, our Earth Scouts group looked at water in a different kind of way.

Many of us living in developed nations don’t give it much thought, but clean water doesn’t come easy to many people in the world. According to the Water World Council and the World Health Organization, approximately 1.2 billion people suffer from lack of access to clean Black Road Water Plant Aerial view of the Joliet fresh and wastewater treatment facility. Black Road Water Treatment Plantdrinking water and nearly 2.5 billion live without improved sanitation systems (i.e. no toilets). The World Health Organization reports that more than 10 percent of people worldwide consume foods irrigated by untreated wastewater. The international non-profit organization Water.org reports that more than 3.5 million people die each year from water-related disease; 84 percent are children. Nearly all deaths, 98 percent, occur in the developing world. Water.org puts it in these terms: “The lack of access to clean water and sanitation kills children at a rate equivalent of a jumbo jet crashing every four hours”–enough to give one pause, to turn off the lawn sprinklers, and take a little field trip. And so we did.

The lack of access to clean water and sanitation kills children at a rate equivalent of a jumbo jet crashing every four hours.

Realizing the dire world crisis before us, our group decided to look a bit more closely at our own fresh and wastewater systems. To do this, we turned to the City of Joliet, IL where we were graciously welcomed to tour their combined fresh and wastewater treatment facility. The facility is one of three in Joliet; while it is their smallest plant, it is the only one that has both fresh water and wastewater treatment at the same facility, so we thought this would be a good chance to see both ends of the spectrum.

to the black road plant

The Black Road water treatment plant is located just outside the city limits on the far west end of town. It’s mostly open land out that way as you drive west on Black and watch the fringes of suburbia fall away one treeless subdivision after the next. In the middle of nowhere, we take a left down a gravel path and spot four low-lying silos in the distance–the water plant.

Once inside the small nondescript administration building, we meet Plant Operations Superintendent Harold Harty–a small-statured man in his mid-fifties wearing stonewashed jeans and a button down shirt. Greeting us with a smile he waits as our group of 24 filters in from the brightness of the day to gather around a work table beneath the buzz of fluorescent lights. There he introduces us to Jay in charge of fresh water treatment, Wayne in charge of wastewater operations, and Nick the chief water operator overseeing the entire plant–our tour guides for the afternoon.

fresh water treatment

To move things along we break into three smaller groups and head out walking south down the perimeter access road. First for our small group is the fresh water treatment area. Jay talks to us as we walk. Joliet has the largest complete municipal water and sewer treatment system in the state, serving approximately 170,000 people in 4 communities. The fresh water system includes 26 active wells, 10 water treatment plants, 8 pumping stations, and 12 water reservoirs, not to mention 450 miles of water main. Jay goes on to explain that this plant is unique in its Hydrous Manganese Oxide (HMO) treatment process. Back in 2007, the city was cited by the EPA for elevated levels of radium in the drinking water. Since that time, the city has upgraded its treatment plants to make use of the exorbitantly expensive HMO process designed specifically to remove radium from the water. Jay tells us, however, that in his opinion the radium level prior to HMO conversion was harmless, but the EPA forced the changes. As we approach a rectangular brick building, Jay swipes his key card and invites the children into the windowless structure. The first thing we see is a gigantic green tank filling the room. This is a filtration tank where water from the 1800 foot bedrock well is pumped and filtered through layers of activated charcoal, sand, and gravel. He informs us that security is tight and that the “system” knows at this point that we have entered the building and exactly how many people are in the group. The only reason an alarm is not sounding, Jay says, is due to the key fob he holds in his right hand. Apparently, he is authorized and the “system” knows it. Pointing at a computer console mounted on the wall, our friendly authorized tour guide explains how he can control and monitor everything from this station–pumps, chemical injections, levels, security, and so on. Data is sent from this station directly to the EPA on a daily basis.

We move slowly to the adjoining room, as Jay continues to talk to us about water plant vulnerability in a post 911 era, and I begin to wonder how secure this place really is despite Jay’s claim that the “system” knows. The next room contains several large chemical tanks. This is the heart of the very expensive “HMO” process designed specifically to remove naturally occurring radium from the water. Computer controlled pumps control the injection of Hydrous Manganese Oxide–a black sticky compound–and other chemicals to remove certain elements from the water, as well as to add chemicals ranging from fluoride to chlorine to anti-corrosives to keep water lines coated and clean. While I recognize water treatment is important, I can’t help but be disturbed by the amount of chemical put into the water for whatever reason. Jay talks further about fail safes and the benign nature of most of the chemicals used in the water, but at one point he does allude to the horrible things that could happen if chemical lines were rerouted and so forth. As we begin to move on, Jay pauses at an open cabinet to explain that not all the chemicals in the vicinity are benign. He holds forward a small vile and has me read the label–cyanide–apparently used to sterilize small water samples for certain testing. I guess we just have to trust the people who work with our water.

wastewater treatment

The Black Road plant is the only water plant in Joliet that houses both fresh water and wastewater treatment facilities. So after some time in the windowless confines of the fresh water treatment buildings, we exit to a sea of dandelions under a bright sun and blue sky to meet Wayne for the second part of our tour.

Across the field we walk. Wayne asks if we got to see any water with Jay. Being on the wastewater side of the operation, he’s not too familiar with what the setup inside those windowless buildings looks like. We explain that it was mostly tanks and pipes and vats of scary chemicals. He assures us that we’ll see some water in his area.

He takes us for a walk to another concrete structure on the northwest corner of the compound. When the wastewater enters this facility, this is its first stop. As it flows in, it goes through a bar screener to remove debris, trash, as well as gravel and sand. The debris is bagged and hauled to the landfill; the gravel is collected for reuse. After this initial straining, Wayne explains, the black wastewater flows into a small maze of aeration tanks where it is physically agitated by spinning metal tines which introduce air into the water–an essential ingredient to speed the growth of bacteria and other microorganisms which consume harmful organic matter in the wastewater.

Wayne leads our group up a set of metal stairs and onto a catwalk suspended over the aeration tanks. There we stand looking over pools of churning sewage–fascinating–and a bit gross. Lying on the metal grate just ahead, I spot a round foam life saver with a nylon rope tethered to it. I can’t resist, so I ask Wayne if anyone has ever fallen in. Laughing, he says no, not here, but at his previous plant he recalls one guy who managed to fall into the aeration tank. He points to my beard. “He had long heard. You should have seen it when he crawled out. There was all kinds of stuff stuck in there.” Nasty. The kids are getting a kick out of this. There’s nothing funnier than poop.

From the aeration tanks, we head over to what Wayne calls the secondary sedimentation tank. This is where the grease and sludge is skimmed from the water by slow circulating mechanical arms. Some of the activated sludge is returned to the aeration tank to further aid the growth of microorganisms for the breakdown of harmful organic matter. (Harmful organic matter? Err, I think he’s talking about poop.) As we stand there under the dome of the sedimentation tank watching the slow methodical work of the skimmer arms, Wayne points out the water spilling over the outer rim of the tank into a lower reservoir. This water is just about clean, he says. It does look clear, but still it’s so close to that black sludge. Hmm.

We exit the sedimentation tank and head over to one more open tank. Wayne reminds us that no chemicals are used in this treatment process–just aeration and skimming. In this last tank, a set of ultraviolet lights shine down into the water to kill dangerous active bacteria before the water is finally released into the Dupage river. Wayne instructs us to stay where we are as he climbs down the stairs to the lower metal grate covering this final reservoir. He takes a long metal pole with a plastic cup attached to the end of it and dips it down into the tank. Carefully he brings this to the top of the stairs. We crowd around and look into that plastic cup. It’s clear. Crystal clear water. As he pours this water out onto the sidewalk in front of our feet, Wayne tells us the water is cleaner than the river where it will be released. It poses no threat to wild life he says. “But still I wouldn’t drink it,” he’s quick to add. So that’s it, wastewater treatment. Black sewage comes in and just about nine hours after churning around a few tanks it leaves crystal clear.

Behind Wayne are two black silos that we will not visit. Those contain poop he says. (Err, I think the industry term is “cake.”) The city of Joliet pays farmers to take these biosolids for use in certain crop fertilization.

water and responsibility

As the tour winds down back by the administrative building and the kids wander about the green field picking dandelions, I reflect on the significance of what we’ve just seen. On this earth, we have more or less a fixed amount of water; it just keeps moving through the cycle. What I drank from the tap this morning may have rained down over the Amazon last year, been flushed down a toilet a decade ago, been blown as steam from a kettle somewhere in Asia two thousand years ago, or been locked in a glacier a hundred million years ago. Our water is with us on this globe always. We have to take care of it, and we need to find a way to share it equally. It’s a basic right and a deeply fraught responsibility.

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