Have you ever wondered where your wastewater goes? On an illuminating field trip to one of our Nation’s premier wastewater treatment plants with the Marine Science Institute of Redwood City, California, I learned a lot that all of us need to know….

So maybe strolling around a wastewater treatment plant and getting misted with unusual water while taking in the pungent aroma of decomposing sewage doesn’t sound like the perfect afternoon, but I’m glad I did it.

In fact, every middle school student needs to tour their local water treatment and waste disposal facility, because without seeing it first hand, essential public services like these are but an abstract concept, and one that doesn’t urge our immediate concern and attention.

In The Bay Area of California, where for the past three years a drought has sparked concern among the government, private sector and the general public alike, a coalition *(see end-note) of concerned citizens have taken action to conserve our most precious resource by sponsoring grassroots environmental education.

As a new employee of the Marine Science Institute **(see end-note), the non-profit organization charged with educating hundreds of local school kids living within proximity to the San Francisco Bay, I had the opportunity to take my first ever tour of a water treatment plant, a waste water treatment plant, and a plant that combines water treatment with ecological restoration by releasing the cleaned, recycled water into an artificial wetland.

And here is what I learned…

  • Water precipitates in the winter, when it is least needed for farming, and can be naturally stored as snow and ice in the mountains. It is conveniently released by melting when it is most needed to grow crops and to water lawns in the summer months.


  • Precipitation is stored in above ground, man-made aquifers called reservoirs, filled to flood-control limits so that they don’t overflow. Even when these reservoirs are full, the natural stores of water that exist underground can still be severely depleted. We have depleted these such that the land has sunk around 30ft in parts of the Central Valley of CA.


  • Water can be treated, but it costs millions to billions of taxpayer money. It is much, much cheaper to not pollute it in the first place


  • Storm drains are sometimes separate from sewage systems and they are sometimes joined. Either way, increased storm surge also increases flow through the sewers. This can be a problem for treatment plants that need to manage this excess water.
  • Treated sewage water and storm water can be recycled and put back into the system, for example for irrigation, given that there is the infrastructure and public support to do so. The three-year drought in CA changed a lot of people’s perception of recycled water and how it can be better used. It may not be potable but it’s certainly good enough to water gardens, golf courses and even crops.


  • Everything “extra” that you put down the sewage drain creates major problems at treatment plants which means that more taxpayer money has to be spent…so don’t flush ANYTHING other than poop and toilet paper EVER. Cooking oil and grease, feminine hygiene products, contraceptives and products falsely marketed as “flushable” are some of the biggest problems.


  • The lack of producer and consumer responsibility continues to be a major driver of economic and environmental problems in our society. Our current system is strictly reactive, such that taxpaying citizens have to deal with and pay for the problems after they are created. Instead, there could be regulatory organizations requiring environmental assessments of consumer products BEFORE they go to market. Plastic micro-beads, used profusely in soaps until they were banned, are an example of this paradox.


  • Landfills are almost as sensitive as sewers. In other words, toxic chemicals that are thrown away leach out into the soil and end up in our food and water. These chemicals are found in pretty much every product that is not directly recyclable or organic (compostable). They need to be properly disposed of at hazardous waste treatment facilities that accept them. Many can be recycled at these plants. Laws that ban the export of these toxic products, such as televisions and computers, also prevent them from ending up in developing countries where ecosystems and the poor fall victim to their effects.


  • Conserve water, there is only so much of it on Earth and it exists in a closed system.

*Contra Costa Water District, Central Contra Costa Sanitary District, Delta Diablo District, Mount View Sanitary District & Wetland (http://www.mvsd.org/resources/wetlands/), The Lesher Foundation, The Dow Chemical Company.

** http://www.sfbaymsi.org