Some people make lemonade out of lemons, but I think we can one-up that.
At Sioux Center’s wastewater treatment facility, we take something that is “waste” and turn it into a natural resource. We use a natural process to clean the water so well that people can fish and boat in the rivers downstream from us.
Yes, we are proud of our new wastewater plant. It is a state-of-the-art facility. Wastewater first comes through the screens that sift out sand and debris, then to the basins that remove nitrogen and phosphorus, then to the aeration basins that pump in oxygen so organisms can consume the waste. From there, it moves to the clarifier, where the organisms settle out, and the clean water flows into the UV building to be disinfected before it flows into streams. Some of the organisms that settle out are removed and later used as natural fertilizer for farmland.
We take in anything Sioux Center sends us. In the end, we really have only two products — biosolids that help local agriculture as fertilizer, and clear water that can return to a stream and back into the earth’s water cycle. It is incredible what we can do with minimal to no chemical additives.
I give a lot of credit to the wastewater staff I work with — Marly, Sean and Alex. We each have different roles, but we also understand the process as a whole and the ability to interchange with each other. We also take care of the system that serves each home and business — 43 miles of wastewater mains and 11 lift stations around Sioux Center.
With our new wastewater plant, we can adapt to changes in the community. One big change is when industries have large waste discharges, but the other main one is when it rains.
Some people allow their sump pumps to drain into the wastewater system. This is against city code because we can get a sudden, huge influx of clear water at the wastewater plant. It might not seem like a problem, but it is. It messes with the balance we keep with our organisms that eat waste — and it can be a huge trial.
As I mentioned before, these organisms are living things, and our job is to keep them alive. We check them daily with wastewater samples from the treatment process — making sure they are healthy and doing their job. We are caring for living things, but it is not your usual farm — you can only see our organisms under a microscope. We do 4-6 tests on the wastewater daily to make sure those organisms are thriving and that treated effluent leaving the plant meets the high standards we have for it before releasing it into a stream.
We are doing our part to keep our environmental impact good for today and the future. Most of us do not think of our wastewater beyond our homes after we pull the sink plug, run the washing machine, or flush the toilet. As our city wastewater department, we are looking beyond us to protect streams, rivers, and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico. The gulf is more than 1,000 miles away, but we know our phosphorous levels and other factors impact the water there.
We want to do our part. Like you probably do, we enjoy the environment. I enjoy being outside. I want my kids and future generations to be able to enjoy the environment as well.
You do not have to work in our wastewater department to have an impact, too. Here is what you can do:
1. Keep your sump pump water from draining into your house drains and the sewer system.
2. Remember that everything you put down the drain must go through our system. A general rule of thumb: if it is not toilet paper or not meant to go in your body, it should not go down the drain. Please NO flushable wipes, sanitary products, diapers, paper towels, etc.
3. Keep your water softener at the minimum level to soften your water — all the salt in your system ends up in our plant. We are not raising saltwater organisms!
4. Use phosphorus-free detergents for laundry and dishwashing — this has an impact on downstream water quality.
5. Do not put grease down your drains. It gums up your pipes. It gums up our pipes. It floats on the top of our processing water and catches debris. It gums up our pumps. Scrape grease from dirty dishes into the trash, and it will help save you and us from grease problems.
6. Read this column — check. Being aware of what happens with your wastewater and how we are taking care of it will help you make informed decisions.
Thanks for doing your part to make an impact. Big picture, it is even better than lemonade from lemons, isn’t it?
Zeke Ellis is the head of Sioux Center’s wastewater department. He lives in Sioux Center with his wife, Kim, and their three kids. He enjoys spending time at the golf course, with his family and doing anything outside.