With the aid of magnification, that small bead of water jumps alive, teeming with microorganisms. Many swim freely, small orbs zipping at random across the viewfinder, while others swing trunk-like appendages as they heave their manatee-shaped bodies toward motionless globs of organic solids, as still others crawl steadily, their cilia whirring like motors. Their names – Protazoic free swimmers, Water Bears, Nematodes – give them more character still, as the microscopic yet very real residents of an otherwise ordinary-looking bubble of wastewater.
The work these miniscule microorganisms do is monumental, as they are charged with the important job of digesting sewage and making the water we flush down our drains safe to return to the San Miguel River. The business of keeping those microorganisms happy, healthy, and doing their jobs – along with a bevy of other vital responsibilities – falls on the shoulders of an essential yet often unnoticed local department, Telluride’s Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility.
The plant itself could be called inconspicuous, a low-slung building surrounded by solar panels located just west of Society Turn. But enter into its catacombs (much of the plant is actually underground) and it immediately becomes clear that this easy-to-overlook building actually houses one of the regional watershed’s most crucial operations.
Bill Goldsworthy, the Plant Superintendent, hovers, like an unassuming Wizard of Oz, in front of a ceiling-high control panel in the front entryway of the Society Turn plant. He is both a scientist and a conductor, orchestrating the intricate processes by which the wastewater produced by the communities of Telluride, Mountain Village, and Aldasoro is treated within the building.
He’s been doing this job for nearly three decades, and his expertise in the field of wastewater treatment is obvious in the effortless way he explains the complex procedures undertaken at the Telluride facility.
When I flushed my toilet that morning, everything flowed through sewer pipes to the plant’s lift station pump and then into the building. There, any solids larger than one-quarter inch were removed with a bar screen, and the waste then flowed into the grit drive, an oscillating cylindrical tube that removes even smaller solids.
Much of the waste removed during this primary treatment process shouldn’t be going down the drain anyway, Goldsworthy noted: Ultimately, everything removed during this stage of treatment ends up meeting the same fate as anything thrown in the trash, including last night’s leftovers scraped off the plate and into the garbage disposal.
The primary treatment process then begins, as the screened wastewater is then transferred into one of three oxidation ditches. These are deep, oblong troughs dug into the earth, where 25-foot-long paddles rotate continually, forcing air into the water and effectively supplying the plant’s “bugs,” the sewage-eating microorganisms, with the oxygen they need to thrive.
These dungeon-like ditches are where upwards of 90 percent of the pollutants are “eaten” by these hardworking microorganisms, Goldsworthy explains.
The water next goes to one of the plant’s three clarifiers, which are 50-foot diameter pools outfitted with a skimming arm that continually rotates around the surface of the water. Here, Goldsworthy explains, anything with a specific gravity either settles to the bottom or else floats to the top – thus microbes sink to the bottom, while oil floats to the top. The oil is skimmed off the water’s surface, while the sludge remaining on the bottom is transferred to what’s called a digester, where bacteria and other microorganisms rapidly consume any remaining organic matter.
The sludge treated in the digesters is pumped into a holding tank and eventually transferred to a 3000-gallon pressurized tank truck. Now called biosolids, the treated sludge is sprayed onto the surface of a rangeland disposal site near Nucla.
Meanwhile, the water remaining in the clarifier is further disinfected by ultraviolet lights, rather than with a chemical (like chlorine), and soon thereafter is released back into the San Miguel, therein ending its close to 22 stay at Telluride’s Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility. That is a comparatively long time, Goldsworthy says, considering municipal wastewater treatment facilities in places like Denver can typically take only six hours to treat wastewater.
Time-Consuming, But ‘The Favored System’ for Wastewater Treatment
Telluride’s Regional Wastewater Plant’s extended aeration process may be lengthy, compared to wastewater treatment processes elsewhere, but is considered the favored system for municipal wastewater treatment thanks to its efficacy.
Throughout the process, Treatment Plant staff continually monitor the quantity and quality of those all-important “bugs” at the plant’s on-site laboratory. Twice a day, Lab Technician Peter Hayes samples water taken from the oxidation ditches, analyzing its population of bacteria and protazoa. The health of the microorganisms is a direct indicator of the plant’s functionality.
“When we see microorganisms swimming like that, we know our plant is running well,” Hayes says, peering through the eyepiece of the microscope.
Telluride’s Regional Treatment Facility is unique in that it must be able to handle the dramatic fluctuations in population particular to a seasonal resort community.
Goldsworthy says, “The inconsistency of our flows really makes it hard to operate a plant here,” because it’s hard to anticipate the right amount of microorganisms to keep consistently working to eliminate impurities from wastewater. To keep all the plant’s processes operating in sync during high-population times – like the start-of-summer Telluride Bluegrass Festival – staff will begin accumulating higher amounts of microorganisms two weeks prior to the mid-June influx, ensuring that the plant will be ready for the coming wastewater onslaught.
In addition to contending with Telluride’s fluctuating population, the plant regularly faces another challenge: Handling the large amounts of oil and grease that can collect at the facility’s lift station, occasionally forcing employees to climb down to the pump to physically remove the unwieldy grease and keep it operating efficiently.
“Sometimes the grease is so thick you can’t even drop a 450-pound pump down there,” Goldsworthy says, peering through a metal grate to the underground lift station. Oil and grease, like dinner leftovers, should really go in the trash instead of down the drain, Goldsworthy says, “because it really taxes our system.”
The plant utilizes geothermal technology to heat the massive building, which since its installation in 2007 has cut the facility’s heating costs by more than half. The plant has also been powered in part by solar energy, since the installation of solar panels last February.
In the event of a power outage, the plant will continue operating, via a motor generator similar to the kinds used by NASA and by Intensive Care Units at hospitals.
“It’s always a balancing act,” Goldsworthy says of the complex processes that keep Telluride’s wastewater treatment operations running smoothly and efficiently, ultimately keeping the water we flush down our drains safe to return to the scenic San Miguel.