We have had the great fortune to meet some wonderful people with quite diverse interests. I love being invited to take part in activities, and we tend to jump at opportunities - perhaps too often for the so-called "home" school life. The end result is typically wonderful. This week, we had one such educational, entertaining and, at times, ghastly experiences.
Friday we joined A Heart For Learning, a local homeschooling group, on a tour of Santa Maria's wastewater treatment plant. Our guide, Water Resources Manager Shannon Sweeney, was fantastic. She spoke in terms the children could understand while also answering adults varied questions as she walked us sequentially through the plant, just as if we were a piece of detritus floating amongst the 8 million gallons of wastewater treated daily here. And we learned another piece of man's messy nature. (The city provides these free tours as the workload will permit for residents in groups of 20 to 30. Call the City of Santa Maria's main line, then extension 7416.)
We began at the entry point where water collected from sinks, bathrooms and other drains throughout the city enters the plant through two enormous pipes. A heavy grate sorts out some of the largest pieces of waste, most of which really should never have made it to the sewer. When enough items get trapped against the grate, water backs up putting extra pressure on sensors which tell one of three special purpose rakes to drop down and grab a load. The pile is dragged onto a conveyor belt which rolls the trash into a dumpster. Here the plant smelled certainly no worse than the recycling facility down the road. (Talk about STINK! PHEW!)
This was the first point at which Sarah, our until-now-fearless leader, (and perhaps a few others) gagged. Honestly, I thought she was kidding. I had expected the place to really smell bad, so was pleasantly surprised to find that the aroma was not as detestable as anticipated. (We've smelled some pretty awful wastewater treatment plants in passing on many occasions.) Plus, the stuff coming down the belt wasn't what you'd expect. Like the sock, Ms. Sweeney said there's a lot of weird stuff that really shouldn't make it into the sewer, including a remarkable amount of plastic, towels, even cell phones.
Next we passed the giant screws which pull out sand and grit that runs through the system. Apparently, all the mud folks wash off their shoes, the garden dirt that goes down the drain and beach sand just aren't that great for the treatment system. Here we found our first of several "Do Not Drink This Water" signs posted throughout the facility. Do we really need to spell that out at this point? Particularly to people who work here? There must be some sort of safety guideline which requires such an asinine waste of money.
Next we came to the primary clarifier - a vast open tank through which water passes while a giant skimmer constantly scrapes off any grease that rises to the top. The squeegee directs the grease to a grease trap. Meanwhile, an underwater set of fins slowly directs any "sinkers" to a sludge pit in the center of the tank. A heavy pump removes this material for treatment and disposal. (This may have been our leader's second gag point.) Santa Maria's typical afternoon breeze kept the air here relatively fresh.
The water carries on to enormous above-ground tanks in which the wastewater, with all its microbes and bacteria and various other icky stuff, is run through a series of screens. The screens are like cities of bacteria and protozoa which thrive on natural byproducts, or biodegradable waste. This is where we first saw the birds. Hundreds of them perched all along the rim of the open-air tank. We should have taken heed.
Next, the water flows to another set of very large, open, low-lying tanks that reminded me of the filter in our fish pond. Just like the fountain in our pond, this tank recirculates the water through another series of biomass mesh where more bacteria and protozoa enjoy a wastewater smorgasbord. The birds were here, too, riding the four pipes that rotate like the arms of a clock. The kids enjoyed this slow-motion avian amusement park ride while the pipes delivered the partially treated water into the filter. The smell here reminded me remarkably of some of the Mexican grocery stores - a combination of corn tortillas, meat and some untold collection of exotic spices.
It was as we rounded the corner to our next tour stop that the kids spotted the birds again. This time, they were on the mood, hundreds upon hundreds of them. They were swirling and bunching and diving and splitting in an amazing display of precision and aerial prowess.
Then it happened.
The kids got squirrelly, and there were some squeals before I realized what was happening. When I caught E's eye, she was silent. And right between her horrified eyes, like a tilaka, was an almost perfectly round, brown spot, a splatter, a bird turd. That's right. While visiting the wastewater treatment plant, a bird beaned my oldest daughter right between the eyes.
I kind of wish I would have taken a quick photo. (What kind of photographer would missed THAT opportunity?) But the look on her face compelled me instead to first point to my own forehead and mouth, "You have something riiiight here." To which she threw her hands up and mouthed, "I know," indicated she had nothing but bare hands with which to do the deed, and continued mouthing, "how do I get it OFF?" I left the camera hanging and I sacrificed my finger to the cause. (What kind of mom would I be if I hadn't?)
From here on, our tour was pretty much lost to talk of and tittering over The Bird Incident. Sure, we checked out the final drying beds for the waste matter and the resulting extremely rich compost piles. But as we gathered in the main office with Ms. Sweeney to sanitize our hands and address any final concerns, the talk amongst kids and adults alike was of birds and stain-remover.
So, for Sarah, our organizer and instigator and party planner, a toast: Thank you for all you do. Here's mud in your eye.