Guardians of our Water

Part 2 in a multi-part series…chronicles of a LeeGROWS participant

Week 1 – Part 2:

Most people in the U. S take it for granted. It’s free, it’s available, it’s safe. We rarely give it a second thought, except maybe to decide if we’re going to buy it in bottles or drink it right from the tap. Water.

Economists might say it has no value because it is so ubiquitous, yet we can’t live more than a few days without it. An adult’s body is nearly 70% water. Almost 75% of the Earth’s surface is covered with water, but most fresh water is stored under the Earth’s surface in aquifers. And no new water has entered or left the planet since it formed millions of years ago. This means that the water we drink was once part of a dinosaur and has probably been flushed down a toilet somewhere at least 7 or 8 times. (More Water Facts)

So how do we manage to continue to drink and use safe, free, accessible water every single day?

Enter Guardians of the Water: Public Utilities.  Approximately 85 % of U.S. residents receive their water from public water facilities. Working 24/7 every day of the year, public servants are watching over our water supply, guaranteeing that is is plentiful, clean, and readily available.

As part of the LeeGROWS program I described in my last post, I was able to tour both the Corkscrew Water Treatment Plant (one of six in the county) and the Fiesta Village Advanced Wastewater Treament Facility, giving me the skinny on both the “clean water side” and the “dirty water side” of the Lee County Utilities operation.

We were greeted at the Corkscrew Water Treatment Plant plant by plant manger Todd Cichy who took us on a tour and explained how the plant works. It all starts with a series of 55 wells along Corkscrew and Alico roads that draw water from two different aquifer systems – the surficial (shallow, upper) aquifer, the mid-level Sandstone aquifer (200 – 300 feet deep). Some of the other plants draw from the Lower Hawthorne aquifer (700 – 800 feet deep).  Most wells in the system draw from the Sandstone aquifer. The water from the Lower Hawthorn has more salt to deal with than the other two. They never run two wells side by side so that they minimize the impact on any given area nearby. The wells are visited and checked a minimum of once per month.

Cascading water

Once pumped out of the wells the water goes to the highest point of the plant and is gravity fed down several levels as it goes through its cleaning process. As we climbed the stairs to the highest point we could smell the distinct hydrogen sulfide (H2S) odor coming off the well water as it cascaded down into tanks making its way to the next lower level where the plant adds 15,000 lbs. of lime each day to maintain a constant pH (this plant keeps the pH around 9).

Mixing in lime

The lime settles out and is used by farmers on their fields.

The water then gravity feeds to a lower level where it goes through a huge set of air scour filters. Chlorine is added as a disinfectant along with ammonia (though not together, of course) which helps stabilize the chlorine for several weeks. The water is then pumped out to the distribution system to some of the 300,000 customers in Lee County. It takes about six hours for the water to run through the plant’s full process.  They treat 15 million gallons of water a day and there is zero waste at the plant. All by-products are used.

At least one operator is on duty 24/7. They usually begin as trainees, taking courses and learning on the job. After one year, they can earn a “C” license, after three years and more coursework and tests they can earn a “B” license, and after five years, they can earn an “A” license.

I asked Todd if security was tighter at the water plants these days, and he said, yes, definitely.  They have to take lots more classes related to security and terrorism and have to report to the federal government any potential security breach, such as finding a gate unlocked at a well site or at the plant. They’ve also increased camera surveillance significantly at the site.

Later in the day we visited the Fiesta Village Wastewater Treatment Plant (one of eight such facilities in the Lee County system) where all the water that enters the sewer system by way of our sinks, toilets, washing machines, and showers goes to be cleaned up for re-use. Like the “clean” water treatment plants, this one is open and working 24/7 for 365 days a year. This is where you might expect the air to smell of sewage, but there was no stench in the air.

Tom at Fiesta Village WTP

Here we were greeted by Tom W. who promptly showed us a sample of wastewater and then explained how the plant treats it by taking advantage of natural microbial processes. The simplicity of the operation was intriguing, but what really caught my attention was Tom’s enthusiasm and obvious pride in his work and the service he was helping to provide. Here was a government employee that genuinely fit assistant county manager Pete Winton’s description of a person who has chosen public service and wanted to help (and I might add was excited to share his knowledge with the citizens).

Wastewater Treatment Plant
Wastewater Treatment Plant

Tom explained how as water comes in to the treatment plant from the sewer pipes, it is first filtered through a screen to remove the larger solids (rags, chunks of wood, trash) and then filtered for smaller solids like eggshells and coffee grinds. The water then runs through oxidation ditches where it is simply stirred to allow the naturally occurring microbes to begin to break down the waste. The sludge is allowed to settle and is sent back to the plant for compaction. The water is pumped into clarifying tanks and run through a sand filter. The last step is to add liquid chlorine as a disinfectant and then sulfur dioxide to neutralize the chlorine before the water is stored and sent out to customers to be re-used. All the water that is treated at Fiesta Village is sold for re-use, primarily to golf courses in the area.

Bill Hobbs, a chemist for the plant, explained that his job is to measure and monitor the water chemistry of the outgoing water, including total solids and nutrients. Of the 4 million gallons of water that runs through the plant each day, approximately 3.7 million gallons goes back out for re-use.

Bill Hobbs

That water, says Bill Hobbs proudly, “is of almost drinkable quality”.  He boasts zero coliform levels, 13 parts per billion (ppb) nitrates (much less than the allowed 5 ppm), and less than 1 part per million (ppm) total solids (most of which is wood particles from toilet paper) in the outgoing water.

As we exited the plant, Tom made sure we didn’t miss the wall of awards and honors this plant has received for its good work. I left not only understanding the process of how our water is cleaned and re-used, but believing it would always be done competently and with great pride.

_________________________

Coming next: More Than Books…

3 thoughts on “Guardians of our Water

  1. I cringe when I see that commercial on tv saying that Americans used enough plastic water bottles in the past year to go around the world 3 times!!!!! Come on people…get your selves some aluminum water bottles and fill ’em up at the tap or a water fountain…nice article!

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