Thursday, March 20, 2008

They Call It "Influent" (I Call It a River of Poo)

Yesterday I saw a lot of poo.

I'm a member of a working group that looks at issues around the Lower Santa Fe River (which is actually where I went canoeing last week), and the head of the working group often arranges for us to take cool field trips to look at springs, sinkholes, and other water-related things.

This time we went to the City of High Springs Wastewater Treatment Plant. High Springs is a historic town about twenty miles north-ish of Gainesville, and it's right up on the Santa Fe River. It has never had a wastewater treatment plant until now. If you know anything about Florida's geography, you can probably guess the sinister implications of this: people's poo was just going straight into the river, basically.

Now, don't get me wrong. People had septic tanks. But the city manager told us that in 1895, say, a person would build a house and put a septic tank below the empty lot next door. Later, that empty lot would be built on. And people didn't know where their sewage was going.

They assumed, like all of us tend to, that when their toilets flushed their poo went far, far away. In reality, it was going below their neighbor's house -- and then sometimes coming up into their neighbor's house. Or entering the septic tank, and then leaving it through leaks. And then entering the river. Where tons of animals and plants live, and where hundreds of thousands of people swim, canoe, and tube every year. Or, somewhat more sinisterly, entering the aquifer, which is where our drinking water gets pumped from.

And they know this because when they got houses on the new sewer system and went to pump out their septic tanks and fill them with concrete? A lot of them were completely empty.


Some people in High Springs have wanted a wastewater treatment plant since 1957, but they had to wait until 2004.

Here's the gigantor tank where all the poo comes in and is sorted, so to speak.

If I understood correctly, these are poo-chopping machines. Somehow they chop up the poo so it can fit through pipes.

This is what you see as you walk up the stairs to the poo tank.

It looked just like the river of chocolate in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Remember? The one that that one kid fell in, because he was so greedy? "Scrumdidilyumptious."

Some parts looked more like a river than others. Other parts looked like a lot of frothy poo. There was a reason for this ... something about the solids and the treating of the water, but ... yeah, I don't really remember what was said. I was too busy staring at the poo churning three feet below me. Thousands and thousands of gallons of churning, flowing poo.

It smelled a lot less than you would guess (although I still gagged a couple of times). Apparently the poo is "air-pumped," meaning air is pumped into the bottom, to keep the "solids" from just settling there permanently and to introduce bacteria that help break the poo down.

I was having bad anxiety that I was going to fall in, or drop my camera or sunglasses into the river of poo. We were on these narrow catwalks looking down into the poo. It was pretty stressful after a minute or two. That much poo is absolutely overwhelming. And it's only the poo of around 1,200 people! Imagine New York's poo river. Once you start thinking like that, it's hard to stop.

I have to insert some unsolicited advice here: if you ever get the chance to talk to a wastewater treatment employee, ask them what kinds of stuff they've found in the "influent." The range of disgusting and bizarre (and large!) 0bjects will surprise you -- and the employee might have some opinions that have not occurred to you, like "Plastic tampon applicators should be banned!"


Jen said...


Robin's Nesting Place said...

It is hard to believe that we eventually drink the water from these treatment plants. YUCK!

Even harder for me to believe is that they are using the poo (biosolids) for fertilizer on farms across the country. I've wanted to do a blog post on that topic.

sarah said...

From everything I've read, reclaimed water is ok to use on crops. The drinking water thing is debatable. US Water News has a good article about the safety of it,

But I did just read a really scary article about pharmaceutical drugs in drinking water,

Kim said...

I'm impressed that you walked on those cat walks. I'd be freaking out. I mean, what if you or your stuff fell in? Ew.

Wicked Gardener said...

Holy crap, that is gross.