Resourceful Water Treatment

Summer campers, outdoor science students, and retreat groups play and learn at a busy YMCA camp nestled on Glen Cove near the Carr Inlet of Puget Sound in the state of Washington.

The Living Machine at YMCA Camp Seymour recycles wastewater.

The usual camp sounds permeate the drizzly Pacific Northwest air–arrows smacking foam targets, water splashing from canoe paddles, cheers from campers reaching the top of the climbing wall, and cedar crackling in a campfire pit.

Another unusual sound, though, is heard, usually only by maintenance staff. Noisy pumps and air filters are paired with kids laughing and asking questions as they explore the Living Machine–Camp Seymour’s alternative wastewater treatment center.

While the initial intent of installing a Living Machine treatment center at Camp Seymour was to help minimize its footprint on part of the ecologically sensitive Puget Sound, an interesting side benefit is how the treatment center has been transformed into a successful program area.

In addition to the mechanical filters, hydroponic reactors, pumps, and aeration systems–all necessary parts of the treatment process–organic gardens, an oversized greenhouse with teaching labs, a demonstration goldfish pond filled with treated wastewater, and an industrial-sized worm bin are utilized and explored by guests.

Schools that attend the Outdoor and Environmental Education program take an in-depth class titled “Sustainability and the Living Machine.” Camp naturalists guide kids through the wastewater treatment process with several engaging activities, including a scavenger hunt and a small-group activity in which kids try to clean a jar of fake wastewater using tools.

Kids rave about eating raspberries from the vine, making garden mint tea and lavender cabin air-fresheners, seeing a “huge” snake in the greenhouse, and feeding the goldfish–all these exclamations as campers leave the Living Machine area.

But what they’re also leaving with is an increased awareness of the importance of re-using a resource, and learning that water just doesn’t disappear as it goes down the sink or toilet. The program plants seeds with thousands of people every year:

1. There is no such thing as waste.

2. We can work with nature instead of against it.

3. We can think critically about the way we do everyday things.

Following an outdoor science class, a fifth-grade student asks if he can return during free time. This is the essence of environmental education. This is the sound of future generations being inspired.

How Does It Work?

1. Wastewater (including sewage) is piped from camp buildings to septic tanks and then to textile trickling filters. Here, bacteria begin to break down the waste and de-nitrification, while charcoal filters absorb odiferous gasses.

2. The semi-cleaned water then circulates through six 8-foot-deep hydroponic tanks inside the greenhouse. In these oxygenated tanks, plants and microorganisms consume nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, further cleaning the water.

3. Water is then pumped outside to a vertical-flow wetland where waste products are further broken down using wetland plants and organisms.

Campers and school kids learn about the ecological benefits of natural wastewater treatment.

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