Public Perceptions Can Be Distorted
If we think back 50 years, assuming you're old enough, to the days of rotary telephones and black and white televisions you must then realize that wastewater plants that are 50 years old must have current opportunities for advancement as well. New technologies in wastewater plants are just as impressive if you can get past the concept of it being sewage instead of a flashy cell phone or high definition (HD) flat screen television. Sewage is part of all our lives whether we like it or not. We must deal with it to protect our health and the health of the environment. It's natural for people to make jokes and believe me as a plant operator for over 30 years I've heard them all. I actually created a few of my own over the years; why not it's good fodder? In our current discussions, the goal is to contribute ideas based on knowledge and understanding to help the City of Oak Harbor outline our future path.
So to the more serious side of the issue, the combination of science and technology afforded us biological treatment options. Secondary and tertiary processes were born. This enabled us to convert ammonia and ammonium to nitrogen gas and the organics became the fuel to power the organisms that do all the work. With digital control of pumps, blowers, and various input-output (I/O) sensors, advanced treatment costs can be reduced and efficiencies increased. This led to the supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) software used today. Operators of modern facilities can control processes using real-time data and create set points for plant equipment to adjust to minor changes almost instantaneously.
The effluent coming from a modern membrane bio-reactor (MBR) plant today can produce water that is free of all bacteria and suitable for communities to reuse for irrigation, groundwater recharge, street cleaning, industrial cooling water and even toilet flushing for commercial buildings. Reuse requires a build out of a delivery infrastructure and management; it may only be practical in limited applications. Water reuse can be something that beneficially grows with a community but needs to be decided upon during planning. MBR technology uses filters or membranes as they are referred to. They still require biological treatment to remove nitrogen and phosphorous; disinfection is still needed to catch the stray virus that may slip through. Probably the most impressive of all is they are odor free, quiet and if you drove by one you wouldn't know it was there. These membranes replace the large clarifiers of older plants and the equipment is placed below grade. MBRs are compact and can be built on a smaller footprint. A 3 to 6 million gallons per day (MGD) facility can be built on 3 acres. They can be disguised in a building that fits the theme of the area. Blaine Washington built their MBR plant adjacent to their marina and architects designed it to look like two cannery buildings. I've seen them in buildings that look like a lighthouse, a barn, a French villa and occasionally incorporate water features like a moat, fountains or waterfalls using plant effluent.
More and more these technological marvels are including educational centers to educate children and adults about our environment and how we can protect the marine life and our community's health. The solids removed from these plants are digested in aerobic or anaerobic digesters and then pressed and composted for use as soil amendments and fertilizer. Today's water reclamation plants are sustainable producers of reusable water and biosolids as well as methane gas which can be used to co-generate power to help support operations. The biggest hurdle for the industry and now Oak Harbor is to convey to the public that the new treatment plants of today can be a community asset and not a liability; all it takes is education and a vision. We shouldn't waste this opportunity.
It's not unlike anything else that's new until we understand it, we can be fearful. I remember thinking society didn't need computers or cell phones and granted maybe we didn't but now few would argue otherwise.