Around noon on Friday, a pair of bicyclist casually made their way down a driveway past cars parked on what’s usually a lawn. Burgers had just come off the grill, the first tour was just finishing up, and the sewage kept flowing in.
That was the scene at the Essex Junction wastewater treatment plant, where Essex Junction Water Quality Superintendent Jim Jutras held an open house “Water Quality Day” for the community.
As the first tour finished, Elaine Sopchak thanked Jutras for showing her around the facility.
“I think I feel like I have a certificate in wastewater treatment at the moment,” she said. “This has been an outstanding presentation.”
The tour included the massive circular tanks used to settle solids out of the water, the aeration chamber where bacteria take polluting nutrients out of the water, the filtration system, the chemical processes to disinfect the water and the anaerobic digester the plant uses to help generate its own electricity while also keeping pollutants out of the environment.
Sopchak, the vice president of the Essex Junction Board of Trustees, left with a new understanding of the system Jutras oversees – and occasionally asks for money to improve.
Jutras said that’s the point of water quality day – to teach the public that uses the sewer system how it works, and why it matters.
“It’s a hidden thing. It’s usually the biggest investment a community has,” Jutras said of wastewater infrastructure. Sopchak noted that, in addition to the pipes being underground, the treatment facility itself isn’t easily visible from the street, and doesn’t usually have a noticeable smell.
“We have over 40 miles of water pipes, 30-someodd miles of sewage collection, and another 25 or 30 of storm [water pipes], and it’s all water quality,” he said. “And we’re trying to keep those costs down because more is coming at us.”
The “more” Jutras is referring to is the increasingly stringent water quality standards being rolled out in Vermont as part of continuing efforts to reduce pollution by phosphorus and other nutrients or chemicals that can harm public health or the environment.
Public officials, including Environmental Conservation Commissioner Alyssa Schuren, say public outreach and education is important so that taxpayers and water system customers understand the investments communities may have to make.
“What Essex is doing is wonderful, and the good news is that many wastewater treatment facilities are actually opening up their doors,” for community outreach, Schuren said.
Schuren said the work behind public water systems can be a “silent service,” because most people don’t think much about the systems when they’re working well.
“Every day there’s not a problem – we turn on the faucet and we get clean water, or we flush the toilet and there aren’t issues - is essentially a success" for the officials managing public water systems Schuren said.
The Essex Junction open house, and similar events elsewhere in the state this summer, are designed to bring those successes out of the shadows.
“We really do hear about things when they go wrong and that’s when we’re talking about their role, so I applaud them for inviting the public in and trying to build those bridges,” Schuren said of the wastewater plant operators.
She said the connections these public officials make will pay off for them and the community.
“When infrastructure needs arise or investments are needed, they have more knowledge and trust to make those investments,” she said.