I love a good sewage treatment plant. The wastewater treatment plant of San Antonio, Texas, USA, resembles its sister plants around the world: a wide expanse of deep, in-ground concrete tanks filled with brown liquid. There’s a faint organic odor, not unpleasant, and noise from big pumps and motors that are moving city-size quantities of water.
I’ve toured a dozen sewage treatment plants in the last couple of years while researching a book about water. I spent a week watching the staff of the City of Galveston struggle to bring the sewage treatment plant back to life after Hurricane Ike. I scrambled down a 20-foot ladder to the bottom of a half-million-gallon treatment tank. It had just been pumped out, and it was wisest not to look too closely at the debris covering the bottom.
Almost by accident, I’ve become a treatment plant tourist. And I’ve discovered that not much has changed in the world of municipal sewage treatment in the last 20 or 30 or 40 years.
Editor’s note: So begins the story “San Antonio has turned its water treatment plant into a gold mine” by Water Currents’ Charles Fishman, in the August issue of The Rotarian, the magazine of Rotary International. In the piece, Charles explains how the growing, water-stressed city has been making the most of its supply by recycling as much H2O as possible.
The world-famous Alamo uses recycled water, as does a Toyota truck factory. The scenic, touristy riverwalk? Turns out those boats ferrying so many visitors and relaxing locals ply through entirely recycled water during the dry spring and summer.
Charles also describes how a little planning turned San Antonio’s water treatment works into a small natural gas plant, in a clear win-win.