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From Used To Useful: The Ultimate Form of Recycling

Posted on November 14, 2017 by | Comments Off

Most people think what ends up at a wastewater treatment plant is exactly that – waste. Something that is worthless. Now, I admit it is smelly and gross. I’ve stood at the headworks of one of our larger plants, the place where sewage first enters to be treated and where big bar screens trap and filter out all of the large pieces of trash that somehow got down into the sewers. It’s not pretty. I may or may not have gagged. So when I say it’s smelly and gross, I speak from personal experience. How could anything useful come out of that? There is nothing left to be reused or recycled, right? Wrong.

When I talk about wastewater, AKA sewage, I’m not just talking about your toilet flushes. Sinks, showers, washing machines, dishwashers, restaurants, and other businesses all drain to the sanitary sewer system, which is a collection of pipes and pumps that send all that dirty water to our wastewater treatment plants to be cleaned.  And all that dirty water adds up to about 150 million gallons a day. Still sounds like “waste,” I know, but it’s actually full of resources and resources can be reused as long as they can be recovered. That’s why wastewater treatment plants across the country are being renamed for what they actually are – resource recovery facilities.  It’s not just about treating dirty water; it’s about REUSING and RECYCLING. Here are a few ways HRSD is recovering resources:


Environmentally-friendly fertilizer made with phosphorous that used to be inside a sewage pipe.

1.  Nutrients – HRSD partners with Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technologies to recover phosphorous from sewage and turn it into an environmentally-friendly commercial fertilizer right here in Suffolk. It’s called Crystal Green® and its slow-release formula reduces fertilizer runoff as an added bonus. But it gets even better. Crystal Green® is made from struvite, a concrete-like material that builds up on the inside of sewage pipes and causes clogs. Not only are we reducing nutrients going into our waterways by removing them from the wastewater, but we’re creating something useful from something that is normally a big and costly pain-in–the-you-know-what.


HRSD’s Combined Heat & Power System uses 100% of the gas produced; previously, more than half the gas was wasted.

2.  Energy – In Virginia Beach, HRSD’s Atlantic Treatment Plant Combined Heat and Power System generates renewable power and heat from gas produced during the plant’s treatment process. This system meets about half of the plant’s electricity demand and produces enough electricity to power 1,200 homes for a year. And P.S., cleaned water at this plant is sent into the Atlantic Ocean about 1.5 miles offshore, but a portion of it is routed through heat exchangers at the Dam Neck Naval Facility to provide energy-efficient building heating and cooling.


HRSD’s highly treated water passes through the Carbon-Based Advanced Water Treatment step at the SWIFT Pilot facility.

3.  Water– The wastewater that flows to our plants every day is treated and then the cleaned water is sent into local waterways to be reused in the environment. But we decided we could do better than that. HRSD’s Sustainable Water Initiative for Tomorrow (SWIFT) will take highly treated water that would otherwise be discharged into local rivers and put it through additional rounds of advanced water treatment to meet drinking water quality standards. The SWIFT Water will then be added to the Potomac Aquifer, the primary source of groundwater throughout eastern Virginia. This will not only replenish our dwindling groundwater supply, but help the Bay by reducing the nutrients we currently discharge into local rivers, and help fight the impacts of sea level rise. Our SWIFT Research Center is currently under construction and you can check for updates and to learn more.

This might sound like resource recovery to the extreme, but ideas and technologies like these are being implemented all over the world as more communities seek forward-looking solutions. You can also turn your home into a resource recovery facility (and it’s way easier than what HRSD is doing!). Take the #BeRecycled pledge for America Recycles Day on November 15th and pledge to:

  1. Learn – Find out what materials are collected in your community.
  2. Act – Reduce the amount of waste you produce, recycle more, and buy materials made with recycled content.
  3. Share – Encourage others to take the #BeRecycled pledge.

Compost Grown

I have plants growing out of my compost bin – I guess that means it’s working!

This year I’m recovering resources by composting my kitchen scraps and yard waste. All of those leaves littering my backyard right now will be put to use fertilizing my garden beds in the spring. Check out the photo I took this week of my compost bin – it can’t wait to get started! 



Posted in: Going Green, Household tips, Reduce reuse and recycle, Research, Waterways

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Meat Water: Not A Thing

Posted on June 28, 2017 by | Comments Off

There comes a time in every educator’s life when you question if you are really making a difference. Am I reaching people? Am I molding the next generation of world changers? Will they remember any of this? 

I’ve been a Community Educator with HRSD for about 5 years and I love what I do. I get to teach people how HRSD cleans dirty water and why clean water is important, create interactive activities to bring to schools, and blog about my experiences right here on “Let’s Talk Green.” At this point, most of my friends and family know what not to flush because it’s one of my favorite soap boxes to stand on. Encouraging civic engagement is my jam. I even convinced my brother to stop hurling his used turkey fryer oil over the fence. Community Educator win.

But then, it happened. One ordinary night my husband and I were going through the post-dinner motions of cleaning up and getting the kids clean and in bed with enough efficiency to allow for a TV show and an adult beverage before turning into pumpkins. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him leaning over the kitchen sink with the pan he had cooked the beef in that night. No, I thought. He can’t be. He wouldn’t…

Fats Oils Grease Disposal

This is not “meat water.” It is FOG.

Me:  What are you doing?

Husband:  Huh?  Just…

Me:  Are you pouring that grease into our sink?! 

Husband:  What? No, it’s not grease, it’s meat water.

Me:  MEAT WATER?! Meat water is not a thing. There is no such thing as meat water. 

Husband:  Yes, this is meat water. It’s not grease. Bacon makes grease. This is more like water.

Me:  HAVE YOU LOST YOUR MIND?! You can’t pour that down the drain. Do you ever listen to anything I say? I spend a lot of time telling people to keep FOG out of their drains, and now you, my own husband, my sink. That clogs pipes, causes sewage spills…Ahhhhhhhh!  *Throws hands in air*

Husband:  It’s MEAT WATER! Meat water doesn’t clog pipes.


I could continue but we just started to talk in circles at this point. 

Community Educator FAIL. Apparently, my messages are sometimes lost on the ones closest to me. And this is the same sink I have blogged about in the past, a sink that my husband installed WITHOUT a garbage disposal because garbage disposals send too much gunk into the pipes and contribute to clogs and sewage spills. He knows that part. He scrapes his leftovers into the trashcan and compost bin like a champ.   

I guess I need one of these above my sink.

I guess I need one of these above my sink.

So here goes.  For my husband and everyone else I have failed to reach. Fats, Oils, and Grease (FOG) DO NOT GO DOWN THE DRAIN. That includes any leftover residue from cooking meat. Even if it looks “watery.” It’s not meat water. Meat water does not exist. Google it. 

It turns out, I’m not alone. My coworker, Molly, is also a Community Educator, guest blogger, and environmental steward with a green thumb (check out her composting tips). She realized recently that her husband was not using the strainer in their kitchen sink. He didn’t think he needed to since he scrapes all of the large pieces of food in the trash. But what about the teeny tiny pieces? If our husbands lived together, they would have some hefty bills from the plumber. The FOG sent down the drain would cling to the pipe walls and catch all of those teeny tiny pieces and eventually make a big ol’ clog. And there’s more. She also caught her husband (why is it always the husbands?) leaving grass clippings on the sidewalk because “the rain will wash it away into the storm drain.” And not just any storm drain. A storm drain that resides on the worst hit street in the state of Virginia by Hurricane Matthew. Their house flooded, their floors floated, they evacuated in the middle of the night. Everyone on their street is all too familiar with the stormwater system and how important it is to keep things flowing. PLUS, grass clippings pollute our waterways with excess nutrients. Our husbands are both smart people, but it seems we’ve overlooked them in our quest to save the world. 

We all need reminders now and then, so please, take this home with you today:

Meat water is not real. Fatbergs are real. 

Google it. Then educate your spouses.

Posted in: Fats, oils and grease disposal, For educators, Gardening, Going Green, Household tips, Keeping storm drains free, Lawn and landscape, Lawncare, Outdoor tips, Uncategorized, Waterways

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This Pump Station Runs on Innovation. And Coffee. Lots of Coffee.

Posted on May 22, 2017 by | Comments Off

If you live here, this will come as no surprise: Hampton Roads is really flat. It’s life at sea level, and the combination of past construction on wetlands, rising sea level and sinking ground (called relative sea level rise) has turned southeastern Virginia into a poster-child for sea level rise impacts. Hampton Roads is rated second only to New Orleans as the area most vulnerable to relative sea level rise in the United States. All eyes are on us and it’s got everyone talking “resiliency.” How do we prepare?  How do we adapt? One way HRSD is taking action is through SWIFT, an initiative to replenish the aquifer with purified water in an effort to stop the ground from sinking. 

But we’ve been living the low-lying life here for . . . well, forever. And some things we had to learn a long time ago.  For example, when you live sans elevation, you can’t rely on gravity to move water for you. It can’t flow downhill without a hill, so you’ve got to move it. Wastewater from homes and businesses needs to be moved to a wastewater treatment plant and cleaned, so we’ve got to pump it there. We do this with pump stations, and HRSD has over 100 of them. 

You need a birds-eye view when infrastructure goes 30 feet into the ground.

Construction at HRSD’s Bridge Street Pump Station.  You need a birds-eye view when infrastructure goes 30 feet into the ground.

These pump stations need to be maintained and they need to meet the needs of the population pumping to them, or else sewage spills out into the environment. More people = more flushes = more wastewater flowing through the pipes. Today, HRSD is 60% of the way through a project to replace a pump station in Hampton that is past its useful life in terms of age and capacity. This pump station is over 70 years old!  The new Bridge Street Pump Station incorporates the latest technology and will be able to handle the flushes, showers and dishwashing of a growing population in downtown Hampton. Without this investment in infrastructure, wastewater overflows would occur, spilling dirty water into our waterways. 

But this is not your run-of-the-mill pump station.  As HRSD’s General Manager, Ted Henifin, always says, “We reserve the right to be smarter tomorrow.” The new $12.4 million Bridge Street Pump Station is designed to pump up to 16.6 million gallons of wastewater per day and will be resistant to tidal flooding as well as the effects of long-term relative sea level rise. It’s also designed to look like a house and blend naturally with the surrounding neighborhood. Here’s what will lie beneath that homey-looking exterior:

  1. Walls that go down more than 30 feet into the ground.
  2. 5 pumps at the bottom of the pump station:  two 75-horsepower pumps and three 300-horsepower pumps.
  3. Pipes that range from eight to 48 inches in diameter.
  4. 2,700 cubic yards of concrete, grout and fill (to date).
  5. 14 concrete walls, each of them three-feet thick.

Designing for the future is not cheap, but our local economy is benefiting before this project is even complete. There is a wide range of contractors involved:  heavy equipment operators, pipe layers, electricians, plumbers, etc. The number of man hours between HRSD and the local engineering experts and local construction staff hired for this project, still with 10 months to go, is impressive. To date, this project has required approximately 1,400 man hours from HRSD, with HDR completing over 11,000 man hours and MEB General Contractors reaching almost 13,000 man hours. That’s TENS OF THOUSANDS of man hours for this one project in less than three years. HDR’s Inspector is also estimated to have downed 750 cups of coffee in order to keep pace with all this work, so the local economic impact from coffee consumption alone is surely noteworthy.

The Bridge Street Pump Station project and HRSD’s VIP project both take a proactive approach to address aging infrastructure. When completed, these projects will improve HRSD’s ability to handle more frequent peak flows as a result of sea level rise. Check out HRSD’s Time To Build Video to learn more about these efforts to invest in infrastructure, build our community, and grow our economy.

Posted in: Waterways

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It’s Time to Build: This Is Not Your Mother’s Wastewater Treatment Plant

Posted on May 15, 2017 by | Comments Off

It’s challenging. It’s rewarding. It’s exciting. Water is essential for life. These are my answers to the question, “Why do you work for water?” In Hampton Roads, HRSD is working hard to ensure future generations inherit clean waterways and are able to keep them clean. This vision could never be achieved without investment in infrastructure. But infrastructure does more than protect the environment. Infrastructure also builds communities, grows the local economy, and develops jobs. A lot of jobs, as it turns out. Take a closer look at the impact of just one of HRSD’s current infrastructure projects: the latest overhaul of a wastewater treatment plant in Norfolk.  

Raw sewage ran in open ditches as children played in Portsmouth's Simonsdale neighborhood in 1944, documenting the need for construction of a sanitary sewer system.

Raw sewage ran in open ditches as children played in Portsmouth’s Simonsdale neighborhood in 1944, documenting the need for construction of a sanitary sewer system.

HRSD’s Virginia Initiative Plant (VIP) started out as the Lambert’s Point Plant in 1948. If you are wondering if that is old for a sewage treatment plant, yes, that’s super old. How old is super old? Consider this – in 1948, Scrabble and Polaroid cameras were new. Back then, the mere fact that we were treating wastewater at all, instead of just sending raw sewage directly into waterways, was innovative. But by 1987, nutrients had been identified as a major problem for the Chesapeake Bay and we expected more. Construction began on the plant’s largest overhaul, which included a biological nutrient removal process – a process that HRSD would later patent and share throughout the world at no cost to help advance wastewater treatment. Sounds ground-breaking for the 80s, right? It’s because it was. I may be a Millennial, but I’m an old Millennial with a certain fondness for the 80s. Scrunchies. Perms. Neon. I dig it. But ya’ll, personal computers were considered cutting edge technology in the 80s. We’ve come a long way since then, and I certainly don’t want my water resources protected by something that rivals the technology of the Apple IIGS I remember having as our first family computer.  Now don’t get me wrong, I did love my time spent on the Oregon Trail, but remember how long those things took to boot up?  Do we even still say “boot up”?

View of construction efforts at HRSD's Virginia Initiative Plant.

View of construction efforts at HRSD’s Virginia Initiative Plant in Norfolk.

Today, VIP is almost 75% of the way through another major overhaul, a project that will take nearly 5 years to complete. Think of it as version 3.0. While VIP has the capability to remove nutrients, it does not remove enough to meet the Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) or the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requirements. To meet these requirements, HRSD and partners HDR and MEB General Contractors are installing a 5-stage biological Enhanced Nutrient Removal (ENR) process at VIP.  This new process will reduce the nitrogen to 5 mg/l and phosphorus down to 1 mg/l, providing a significant water quality enhancement in our local waterways. At the same time, VIP’s systems and treatment processes are being upgraded to treat a greater volume during storm events. The peak flow capacity of the plant is being increased from 80 to 100 million gallons per day. This ensures the plant has the capacity for major rain events, as rainwater often flows into the wastewater system during storms.  Without this extra capacity, the total amount of water flowing to the plant during major rain events could inundate the wastewater treatment plant, causing back-ups and potential overflows in the system. 

Version 3.0 costs over $150 million.  Is it worth it? Is it really time to build now? YES! Our water infrastructure is aging and we ALL need clean water. But it does so much more for the local economy than you may realize. The local economy receives a boost from any major infrastructure project. Our partner, MEB General Contractors, is based in Chesapeake and uses locally based subcontractors. Over the course of this one project, hundreds of jobs have been created and sustained.  The daily manpower onsite has ranged from 75 to 150 workers, not including support staff at home offices and supplier facilities, and has required 621,740 total man hours. These jobs allow many people to have stable employment close to their families, and in turn, the people involved in the design, construction and supply of materials funnel money back into the local economy. And speaking of materials (drum roll, please) this project requires the equivalent of 90 miles of concrete and steel piles, 5,700 tons of reinforcing steel, more than 45,000 cubic yards of concrete, 7,000 truckloads of excavation, 4 miles of piping ranging from ½” to 9’ in diameter, 182,000 feet of conduit and 1,160,000 feet of copper wire.  Whew.  I want to build something just thinking about it. 

The numbers are impressive, but Bruce Husselbee, HRSD’s Director of Engineering, knows it starts and ends with people. He recently told me, “We employ talented individuals and through their hard work and dedication make these infrastructure projects successful.”

Infrastructure may be crumbling across the country, but here in Hampton Roads, we are building. We are building now, so that future generations will benefit from clean water. We have a long history of not only meeting needs, but exceeding them and we will be ready when the next challenge arises.  Leggings may have made a comeback, but the Walkman’s glory days are long gone. We have to continue innovating and investing in infrastructure for the sake of our communities, jobs, and economy. Working for water means working for our future. 

Posted in: Waterways

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Imagine a Day Without Water

Posted on September 14, 2016 by | Comments Off

I never knew how long a day could be until I had kids.  Early in the day I’m always so optimistic about the things I’ll get done once the girls are in bed: send some emails, mend my shirt, do a workout video. Maybe I’ll even start my 2-year old’s “first year” photo book. Ah yes, I have such good intentions until reality hits at about 5 pm. The 5-year old starts acting like she’s 2, the 2-year old strips down naked and runs around like a wild boar, and I realize dinner will be about an hour late. It’s all downhill from there. By the time my kids are asleep all I want to do is join them. That photo book is not happening. Again. But I’ve still got to do the dishes, laundry, and generally restore the house to a place that doesn’t resemble the path of a tornado. It seems like a lot to do at the end of a long day. But really, I’ve got it easy. Actually, I’ve got it easier than 663 million people. Let me explain.

It takes me about 15 minutes to do the dishes most nights: Load dishes, add detergent, push a button. Check. It takes even less time to do the laundry: Load clothes, add detergent, push a button. Check.  By this point I’m normally feeling quite productive and decide not to bother cleaning the rest of the house. It will just look like this again tomorrow night, right? Instead I cozy up on the couch and stream some mindless show. I’ve got time. After all, what takes some people over 6 hours each day to do, I just did in under 30 minutes. The clean water that is piped to my house saved me the time I would have spent collecting water, the dishwasher and the laundry machine are doing all the work for me, and the dirty water from all this washing is going to be carried away by another set of pipes and cleaned at a wastewater treatment plant. All I’ve got to do is push a couple of buttons. 

Single Family Rainwater Collection Tank in Rwanda. Image by Pete Isaac.

Single Family Rainwater Collection Tank in Rwanda. Image by Pete Isaac.


Toilet with Toilet Paper in Rwanda.  Image by Pete Isaac.

Toilet with Toilet Paper in Rwanda. Image by Pete Isaac.


Hand washing station in Rwanda.  Image by Pete Isaac.

Hand washing station in Rwanda. Image by Pete Isaac.

But 1 in 10 people in the world can’t sit on the couch because they don’t have access to the water and plumbing that would allow them to enjoy modern appliances. Forget about the couch. Women and girls trade time working and time at school to collect water. Believe it or not, 1 in 3 people don’t even have access to a toilet. That means more people have a cell phone than a toilet. When people lack clean water and sanitation, they have no system that reliably brings clean water to their home or takes the dirty water away, and that changes everything. Could you imagine a day without water? Without safe, reliable water and wastewater service? Most Americans take water, and the systems that bring it to and from homes and businesses, for granted. We turn on the tap, and safe drinking water reliably comes out. We flush the toilet, and we don’t have to think twice about how that wastewater will be taken away and safely treated before it is returned to the environment. 

 If you can’t imagine what that would be like, take a look at my friend Pete’s photos. Pete is a Peace Corps Response Volunteer in Rwanda working with Les Compagnons Fontainiers du Rwanda (COFORWA), an organization focusing primarily on Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) projects.  The photos on the left are water and wastewater infrastructure improvements in a rural community. The first is a single family rainwater collection tank, the second a toilet, and the third a hand washing station. And yes, you read that correctly, these are infrastructure IMPROVEMENTS. Before these were installed, families had to fetch water multiple times a day in a jerrycan. Materials to treat water, like chlorine, are typically inaccessible or too expensive, so water from this rainwater tank is either used as is or boiled before drinking to prevent illness. It makes my evening routine look like a vacation in paradise.

Our nation’s water and wastewater infrastructure is aging and in need of investment, while drought, flooding, and climate change all place extra pressure on our systems. As our pipes age and our communities grow, we need water and sewer systems that are capable of meeting our needs now and well into the future. The investments we make today to repair and upgrade our systems protect them so that future generations will not have to imagine a day without life-sustaining water.

On September 15, we join together with communities across the country to raise awareness and education for Imagine a Day Without Water. What better time to learn about water issues from a global down to a local level?

  1. Check out Pete’s blog to follow his work in Rwanda, and make sure to read about his own experience without running water for 5 days
  2. Watch the Imagine a Day Without Water video to find out more about the water crisis facing America.  You can also take action by signing the petition.
  3. Watch HRSD’s SWIFT video to find out what HRSD is doing to ensure a sustainable source of groundwater for everyone in Hampton Roads and take a Virtual Tour of a local wastewater infrastructure improvement project happening now.
  4. Find out more about aging infrastructure in Hampton Roads and what you can do to help.   

I appreciate what I have the most when I am sitting on my couch listening to my appliances do the work, but access to clean water and sanitation is more than just a convenience.  It means more kids in school, fewer people getting sick, and for too many it can be the difference between life and death. We can do better. Water is essential, invaluable, and worthy of investment. So take a moment to give thanks, hug your toilet, and encourage others to value water. As they say, you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.   

Posted in: Clean and safe tap water, Using water wisely, Waterways

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