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How's The Water? Part 4

The first three parts of the GLT News series "How's The Water?" have focused on the condition of water before it comes to your home. In part four, you'll hear about the back end of the water filtration process--what happens when we flush our toilets, wash our dishes and run our showers or washing machines. WGLT's Judy Valente has the story.

A toilet flushes at 8:30 in the morning on the east side of Bloomington. As those individual sheets of toilet paper and pieces of human excrement spiral down the toilet bowl drain and out of your sight, public works employee Jim Crowley is watching over what happens next.

“I’ve always said that I literally have a crappy job, and everyday really is,” Crowley said.

It’s Crowley’s job to monitor what goes on in the city sewers, an unseen, underground universe.

"Without being gross about it, I see what people had for dinner the night before. I’ve see rats, mice. I’ve even chased a raccoon down a sewer line,” he added.

It’s a world he monitors by popping manhole covers and spooling a remote camera via cables through the city’s intricate sewer system.

“It’s like a highway system, basically. We rush everything the water reclamation plant.”

In this version of a road network, a series of metal or plastic pipes lead out from individual homes. They serve as exit ramps pouring into main arteries which are the clay or brick sewer lines laid by the city.

Some effluent or other particle is seen passing through.

“Yeah probably somebody just flushed or somebody’s taking a shower," Crowley said. " Sometimes I’ll run through some suds. It’s really like a disgusting car wash. It’s basically stuff people don’t think about everyday after they flush their toilet or flush their sink. That’s what I look at.”

But it’s important to think about what we put down our toilets, sinks and other household drains. That’s because everything having to do with water becomes a cycle. What we flush ends up at the city’s two waste water treatment plants.

Flowing downhill

Ultimately, once the sewage and other nasty stuff is removed, the treated waste water flows into Sugar Creek and the Little Kickapoo Creek. Those creeks empty into Salt Creek which eventually becomes part of Sangamon River, and then finally the lllinois and Mississippi Rivers. There, it becomes a source of drinking water – albeit highly treated drinking water – for some communities southwest of here, including St. Louis.

Sugar Creek is also important for people here because it is a potential source of water. Bloomington is considering a plan to pump water from wells adjacent to Sugar Creek, as a way of adding to the water supply as the city’s population grows.

So what goes down your drain does make a difference.

“Most people are pretty good about not flushing chemicals and paint or things like that. It’s not good for the environment. It’s common sense. If it should be thrown out, throw it out, don’t flush it down the toilet,” Crowley said.

But still there are surprises. Crowley says he once discovered four old tires in the sewers, which someone had stuffed down a manhole. Needless to say, it caused a major sewage back up.

“It's laziness. They just didn’t want to get rid of them or pay for disposal and figured dumping them in a sewer no one would know about it.

'Surveillance' van

Crowley observes what’s happening in the sewers from the back of a white city public works van.  The area looks something like those surveillance vans that the fictional CIA agents in the TV show “Homeland” use to spy on the unsuspecting. A computer is set up on a console along with a monitor screen that shows real time images of all that his remote camera is picking up down below in the sewers.

“I always wanted to put a magnetic sign on the side of the van that says 'FBI Surveillance.' I mean you have to have a sense of humor to do this job, no doubt about it. I see stuff people shouldn’t have to see in a lifetime," Crowley said.

But this is serious work. The camera equipment Crowley uses costs about $100,000. With this method, he can often detect if there is a break in a residential sewer line before homeowners even become aware of it.

"We just helped a homeowner out yesterday who had a horrible experience of a basement backed up. He had sewage in his basement. They wanted to know why, what happened. The pipes had separated. It just did, and once we found that we knew exactly where they had to dig to alleviate that problem,” Crowley said.

In older neighborhoods there are still old brick sewer mains that date back more than 75 years.

“It’s really incredible work. They did all that by hand, at least some of the mains are still there in town today and they function really well,” he added.

There's a notion that men walk in the sewers. There have even been stories in literature of people living in sewers.  Crowley says it's not so.

"That’s not quite accurate because they pipes aren’t big enough for anyone to live in," he said.

“Well, you know what, actually that is pretty accurate. Some lines in town you can literally walk through. We have some storm lines that are 48 inches to 72 inches depending on the part of town. Years ago, guys would actually get down in there. Now, they would have to be pretty short to do it,” Crowley said.

Two treatment plants

Whatever the size line, waste water and effluent all ends up at one of waste water treatment plants. There is a plant on the west side, on Oakland Avenue, and the newer Southeast plant, built in 2005, is located six miles south of Bloomington in Randolph Township.

Randall Stein is executive director of the Bloomington Normal-Water Reclamation District, which operates both plants

"Water runs down the sink, the garbage disposal it’s contaminated with what you run through your garbage disposal, your laundry, you toilet. We remove that contamination biologically at this facility and return it to the environment,” said Stein.

A single person uses an average of 100 gallons of water a day. This waste water is treated in various stages. Arriving at the plants, the sewage is churned up by a series of pumps known as Archimedes or screw pumps, named for the ancient Greek who invented them.

“This is raw sewage coming in so you do smell raw sewage. Once we start to aerate it, you get an earthy smell. Over here, you don’t get that sewage smell,” said Stein.

At this point, the sewage looks a little like mashed hot dog meat that’s turned brown.  Toilet paper is usually mixed in along with the odd condom or sanitary napkin. The waste water that arrives at the two plants come not just from the sewer system, but also from public storm drains. Among the items Stein says has shown up at the plant.

“I’ve seen cell phones, they fall out of people’s pockets. I get calls all the time, ‘I lost my ring, can you watch for it? There is no way. With cell phones, by the time they get here, I mean, you don’t want them. They’re completely broken,” Stein said.

The effluent goes through a series of screening processes to remove solid material. Two clarifier tanks allow that material to settle at the bottom. Once mostly water is left, that water is set upon by a variety of microbes -- about 160 tons of them. Those microbes eat pollutants still in the water.

Not lethal

In one of the final stages, the water is treated with a massive dose of ultra-violet light which further purifies the water. It turns clearer. Stein scoops some of the water in his hand as it passes through a channel. He puts a drop on his tongue to prove a point.

"Would I drink this water? It’s certainly not lethal. You might get a bad stomach ache. I’ve tasted it, I mean it’s pretty flat,” Stein said.

Still, Stein maintains the waste water he returns to the environment is probably as clean or cleaner that the water sitting in either of Bloomington’s two main sources for drinking water -- Lake Bloomington and Lake Evergreen – before that water is purified and sent out to household as drinking water.

Illinois State University Professor Angelo Capparella is conservation committee chairman of the local Audubon Society.

“They’re one entity in town that I give sterling marks to for always going above and their beyond duty to protect water resources,” said Capparella.

He says the fish population, including long nose gar, crappies and small mouth, bass has increased considerably in Sugar Creek and the Little Kickapoo Creek in recent years, which is a good measure of the cleanliness of waste water being returned to those two creeks. But in other ways, we aren’t out of the water, so to speak.

Don't flush pills

"We’re finding a number of pharmaceuticals, birth control pills, things like that are get through water treatment because they’re  not set up for that. People flush drugs down all the time, plus it’s in your urine. You metabolize the drugs and it what comes out in your urine will go in as well. Plus people have a horrible habit of flushing medicines down the toilet which is just terrible," said Capparella.

Right now, there is very little that can be done to remove pharmaceuticals from the water. And, Capparella says, another common way that chemicals get into the waste water is runoff from lawn herbicides, pesticides and fertilizer from grass cuttings left in street gutters which then make their way into storm drains.  

"People in the Midwest are very fastidious. They want perfectly manicured landscaping," he added.

Capparella says compost the clippings or just leave them on the lawn. Pouring anti-freeze into sewer drains or putting bacon grease down the kitchen sink are also not recommended.

It is an expensive proposition to treat waste water. Another plant like the two in Bloomington would cost about $160 million to build today. Capparella, Stein of the Water Reclamation District and Jim Crowley of the Bloomington Public Works department all agree conservation is key. The less water you use, the less water will end up in those sewer pipes Crowley watches over everyday.

  Equinox House

An increasing number of people are seeking ways to better conserve water and decrease water contamination. Ty Newell is a retired engineering professor from the University of Illinois.

He's been working to make his home in Urbana a model of conservation and energy efficiency by collecting rain water for use in a range of household purposes. Newell recently gave a tour of his home to WGLT's Michael Hill.

The Equinox House also features solar panels that produce more than enough energy to power his home and two electric cars. Among the other unique features at the home is a clean air system that monitors the amount of dust and other allergens in the air, as well as foam insulation that keeps warm air out in the summer and cool air out in the winter.

Find out more about Equinox House

Listen to the story

Michael Brown Q&A 

Michael Brown is executive director of the Ecology Action Center in Normal. He says there may come a day when waste water is used as drinking water.

"I think that's possible but more for long term, bigger picture," he said. "It's going to require were are more to the point where our needs are exceeding the capacity," Brown added.

Brown says another source could be the Mahomet Aquifer or other underground water sources.

"But we really don't know--long term--the recharge rate of that aquifer. You have to consider a potentially-growing population and future needs," he added.

Brown says there's room for increased conservation. He says with global climate change a reality and the higher probability of drought conditions, people who might otherwise be aghast at consuming treated effluent could be conditioned to accept that option.

Listen to the interview