A Valentine’s Day tour of Monroe County’s Water Resource Recovery Facility

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IRONDEQUOIT, N.Y. (WROC) — Last week, a New York city’s largest water resource recovery facility — Newton Creek — announced that it would open its doors for a Valentine’s Day experience for couples. It sold out in 20 minutes.

Before you chalk that up to a completely ironic choice for couples, the facility already has a visitor’s center; so perhaps it had some popularity to go on.

But just to make sure that the hype was real around romantic wastewater facility tours, we called up Mike Garland, the director at Monroe County’s Department of Environmental Services. He not only said that the Frank E. VanLare Water Resource Recovery Facility offers semi-annual tours, but that he’d love to give us one, putting these lines to the test:

They say love is like a river. It runs eternal. It ebbs and flows — And gives life to all that surrounds it. To see if water runs like a river — Or if it flows like sewage.

Garland will always make sure you have a hard hat and safety goggles, and will pleasantly remind you what a privilege it is to work for the County, and working with men and women who work 24/7 to keep so many homes in the Greater Rochester safe by providing clean water.

The facility was originally built in 1916, but it’s incredibly high-tech now. One of the buildings even has a old keystone with the year, juxtaposed with the Control Room next door that looks like its out of the silver screen.

They take customer calls there, monitor the weather, and remotely control the various systems throughout the facility. The amount of power contained in this room is truly alluring.

The campus itself is huge, with multiple massive complexes. Garland says it processes between 70 and 100 million gallons of water per day.

First in the tour and the process was a stop at the Bar Screens and Aerated Grit center, which is used to screen-out physical objects like rags, wood, bricks, grease balls, condoms and debris and settle-out grit that could damage pumps and equipment in the plant. 

The smell was intoxicating and stale, and a tourist could even take a rake and move around the refuse for a satisfying squish.

Next stop was checking out the Primary Settling Tanks, which was also a perfect space for bird watching — the seagulls keep a fair distance to any humans. This area is used to settle-out more solids as well as skim-off scum (fats, oil, grease and other floatables).

The aroma moves more to an oily base, and watching the greasy scum dump into the trough is delectable, and the sound it makes when it lands is both intriguing and horrifying.

The next step has a sentimental twist; Garland describes it as “this the biological part of our treatment process, really the heart and soul of our treatment facility.”

The Aeration tanks are used to grow microbiology (love) “bugs” to consume organic constituents in the water as well as nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen, in a lovely and soothing bubble bath. Fittingly, the aroma shifts to a soapier, cleaner smell, rather than musky.

Next, at the Distribution Box, you can get a drink. It’s where the Mixed Liquor (effluent from the aeration process with microbiology) is flow-distributed to the secondary clarifiers for settling.

You can even dangle your feet over the scenic waterfalls, with the mostly (well, not really yet) water. The smell here was replaced by the brisk winter air.

We weren’t able to include these in the video, but they are essential to the water treatment and romantic processes of the facility, and can be apart of your tour as well:

Secondary Clarifiers: This is the final physical settling process where biomass from aeration settles out and any other solids that did not settle out in the prior processes. Other floatables are skimmed off as well. The biomass is pumped to the Thickener Tanks for thickening or returned to the influent of the aeration system to consume organics in the water.

Chlorine Contact Tanks: The water is disinfected in these channels with sodium hypochlorite to kill pathogens before it flows out the outfall pipe three miles into Lake Ontario past the Rochester Embayment. 

Sampling Room: Where samples are taken of the recovered water that is being safely returned to Lake Ontario. These samples are tested in our Pure Waters Lab for compliance with our NY State Discharge Permit.

Thickener Tanks: Where biomass from the Secondary Clarifiers settles to thicken before being processed in our centrifugal dewatering process. 

Before you take a detour to check out the incredible view, your official tour ends at the Centrifuges. This place as a Seussian poetic charm, with rhyming couples and couplets adorning the machinery. You can even get a sugary snack: “The Sludge Cake.”

Where the biomass (also known as sludge) is dewatered by centrifugal force to create Sludge Cake. The Sludge Cake is pumped to hoppers to be offloaded into trucks to be safely disposed off at a landfill. The Sludge Cake is treated with special chemicals to greatly reduce odors.

Garland hammered home that his favorite part of the job is working with good people to keep our water safe.

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