- Laura Eurich
It started out as a mission to find out if there was any truth to something I heard years ago. I don't remember when, or who said it, but I recall being told that at the end of the sewage treatment process, they find whole, undigested vitamins. "What a waste," was my second thought. Of course, my first thought was, "GROSS!"
Often, as I swallowed my vitamins, I wondered if it was even worth it. Then I stumbled across a Wired magazine article about the strangest things found in a Berlin waste treatment plant (dentures and bullets among them).
That's what led me to the Springs' Las Vegas Wastewater Treatment Facility recently. I set out to see what oddities our sewers might yield.
Turns out they don't see vitamins. And potty talk comes easily, and sometimes mistakenly: "We did find a feces once." ... "Do you mean a fetus?"
While I was relieved that I'm not flushing cash when I buy vitamins, the tour left me rethinking much of what I do wash down the drain.
Colorado Springs is served by two sewage treatment facilities — the larger one on Las Vegas Street handles 30 million gallons a day, while the other facility at Garden of the Gods Road and Mark Dabling Boulevard sees about 8 million gallons — so that's about 38 million gallons of sewage produced in our generally fair, but sometimes foul, city. (There are some pockets of homes with septic systems through Colorado Springs, still.)
Our first stop on the tour was the screen room, where machinery separates the solids from the liquids. This is the first place where the 30 million gallons of sewage is exposed to air. As a result, that air feels thick and assaults the nose with a rancid smell. "It smells like money to me," jokes Gary Marshall, operations superintendent.
Marshall said that our sewage is 99.9 percent water. While that makes it sound innocuous, the 0.1 percent is disgusting. One peek into the screens at work and I recognized tampon applicators and a scrunchie.
Displayed on the side of the room are some of the more interesting finds: a couple Disney princesses (who are probably wondering what they did to deserve such treatment), a child's toothbrush and a few other small children's toys. I admit to being guilty to flushing a toothbrush once — an ill-timed slip, and I wasn't going to plunge my hand into the dirty bowl to retrieve it. Advice from a page on the Utilities website: Keep small items away from the toilet.
The most surprising thing I saw was hundreds of wipes. You know, those "flushable" wipes they sell for when simple dry toilet paper won't do? Well, it turns out they might be flushable, but that doesn't mean they're biodegradable. At least not in the time it takes to make it from your toilet to the plant. From the time I flush in the Old North End, it takes about three to five hours for that sewage to make it to the treatment plant. Your sewage travel time may vary depending on your neighborhood and time of day — the heavier the flow, the faster it goes.
Lisa Barbato, wastewater treatment manager, says that the industry is working with manufacturers to make these wipes better for sewage systems and the environment.
After the screens, they took me to the grit room. The smell here was equally rancid, but different. Ever been too close to an alleyway dumpster on a hot day? Like that, but imagine being closed in a room with it. (Utilities spokesperson Steve Berry assured me the air we were breathing was safe.)
Dark matter was falling from overhead ductwork into a Dumpster. Upon closer inspection, the dark matter was composed of coffee grounds, eggshells and corn. So much corn. The lesson here? Don't put coffee grounds and eggshells down your garbage disposal. Also my habit of putting cut lemons and limes into the disposal to make it smell nice when I run it? Not recommended. And as far as that corn goes, it sure tastes good, but as we all notice, apparently we don't chew it much and it comes out the other end intact.
Marshall says our sewage goes through five steps before it's released back into Fountain Creek. My instinct of not wanting to play in the downstream water was wrong. We walked to the end of the plant to see where the treated water re-enters the creek. To the right, the creek water was a cloudy brown, to the left the treated water was clear (except for a layer of foam that was the result of aeration).
The moral: Be careful what you put down your drains because it only takes about 12 hours to reach Fountain Creek. Visit tinyurl.com/zvvukrq for info on how to avoid wastewater backup.