Understanding the Royal Treatment at Brightwater

King County’s shiny new sewage treatment plant aims to change our thinking about water usage.

By Seattle Mag May 23, 2012


This article originally appeared in the June 2012 issue of Seattle magazine.

When a visitor tells Ron Kohler that it smells good where he works, he nods graciously. “I hope you pay particular attention to that smell,” he says. “I’m very proud of it.” The aroma—generic fresh air—is nothing special, except that Ron is a manager at King County’s Brightwater wastewater treatment plant. From its innocuous odor to its high-tech treatment methods, to its impeccably landscaped grounds and bleeding-edge architecture, this gleaming $1.8 billion palace of a public facility near Woodinville, which opened last September after nearly a decade of planning, battling and building, is an enormous leap forward in how we handle our sewer waste—and how we look doing it.

Like most cities, Seattle long left its water untreated. Until the early 1960s, a sewage outfall pipe at West Point (Discovery Park) poured some 40 million gallons of city sewage into Puget Sound each day, staining the water brown and sliming the beach during some tides. Other pipes spilled untreated water into a blighted Lake Washington. Ditto for the Duwamish. Even now, King County’s treatment plants at West Point and Renton, which handle water for more than a million residents, occasionally fail—at West Point, foul air sometimes blows over the adjacent Discovery Park beach, and untreated sewage is spilled into Puget Sound when heavy rains overburden the plant.

The Brightwater facility treats an average of 36 million gallons of wastewater each day; the majority of the acreage is public access, including a 40-acre salmon spawning stream restoration

The Brightwater facility has overcome such issues with new technologies and higher standards. “An older generation had an older understanding of what the public would accept,” explains Kohler. Previous generations just accepted that sewage treatment is a smelly business.

But to the minds of many King County taxpayers, this plant is even more remarkable for its price tag. At more than $1.8 billion, Brightwater has been the most expensive wastewater endeavor in King County’s—and, likely, the nation’s—history. And it’s not even our largest wastewater treatment plant; Renton and Magnolia both have higher capacities. So far, Brightwater is serving 105,000 homes and businesses in north King County and Snohomish County, and will expand to more than 189,000 over time.

Looking over Kohler’s enthusiastic shoulder during a tour of Brightwater (“This is my baby,” he says), it’s easy to see why Seattle Times writer Danny Westneat dubbed this 114-acre suburban spot “The Taj Mahal of Sewage” in an opinion column. Once home to a vast auto-wrecking yard, now the first thing most visitors see—including the hundreds of schoolkids who step down from school buses each week for free tours and wastewater science lessons in the Water Resource Learning Lab—is sparkling hand-blown glass art inspired by the “good bugs” (microbacteria) that scrub dirty water at the plant.

The work (shown above), by artist Ellen Sollod, is part of $4.4 million spent on permanent art at Brightwater, to comply with King County’s “1% for Art” program (sort of—it’s less than one percent, if you’re doing the math). Also on display: works by Seattle sculptors Cris Bruch and Buster Simpson.

Nearby is the Environmental Education and Community Center, designed by local über-green architecture firm Mithun (which also designed the new Seattle Aquarium, REI’s flagship store in South Lake Union and the Smith Tower renovation) for millions more. Certified LEED Platinum, the education center uses 75 percent less energy than comparable buildings. Seventy-two acres of open space contain woods, a salmon-bearing creek and wetlands that naturally filter storm runoff. Planted earth berms will eventually hide the entire facility from drivers on nearby State Route 9, and the lights here go dark at night, to preserve starry sky views. People push strollers, walk dogs and jog along the new pathways at what might also be viewed as the county’s best-funded park. All of these perks are mitigation against lawsuits from those who didn’t want a wastewater treatment plant and pipeline in their backyard: King County has mitigation agreements with 10 entities, including the Suquamish and Muckleshoot tribes, and the cities of Woodinville, Kenmore and Shoreline.

Permanent art installations dot the campus, including Jann Rosen-Queralt’s “Confluence” (above) and Ellen Sollod’s hand-blown glass bacteria (previous photo)

But Kohler, who previously worked at the West Point facility, explains that we can’t even see the biggest expense. “The piping costs more than the treatment,” he says. King County was unable to negotiate a suitable location closer to Puget Sound, so unlike the county’s other plants, this one is several rolling hills away from saltwater—requiring a 13-and-a-half-mile, 13-foot-diameter tunnel to transport treated water to Point Wells, north of Shoreline in Snohomish County, built at a cost of more than $700 million. At Point Wells, two outfall pipes were sunk 600 or more feet into Puget Sound, extending a mile out into the water.

All of the noise over seemingly extravagant spending is understandable. But it’s also drawing attention to how much water we use, and how hard it is to clean that water once we’ve sullied it.

All of the noise over seemingly extravagant spending is understandable. But it’s also drawing attention to how much water we use, and how hard it is to clean that water once we’ve sullied it. To really get the picture, it helps to tour the plant itself (though perhaps not for the squeamish).

Start at the headworks, and you’ll see everything you’ve ever been told not to flush, and more, plastered to perforated, rotating metal screens that trap larger pieces of debris while allowing the rest of the waste to flow through. Odd finds include the women’s driver’s licenses that drop in here on Saturday and Sunday mornings. (“The ladies put them in the back pockets of their Levis in the bars, taverns and lounges,” says Kohler. Sometimes—apparently more often than you’d think—the licenses fall out of their pockets and into toilets.)

A few years ago at the Renton plant, a cat-urine-like smell that is unique to methamphetamine labs triggered a federal investigation. Long before that, tens of thousands of dollars were trapped at the West Point treatment plant after a bank robber, cornered by cops in an Aurora motel, tried to flush away the evidence.

A sculpture by Jane Tsong (words by local poet Judith Roche) blesses the treated water as it exits the facility

Most of what we flush is more predictable. Much of the debris on these screens is condoms and tampons. Tampons may be made of biodegradable materials, but they arrive surprisingly intact after the average four to six hours it takes for what is flushed to get to a Seattle-area plant. So do diapers, disposable wipes, paper towels and Q-Tips, but people flush them anyway—an expensive trip, given that clean water is often used to deliver the refuse, which is then scooped up and driven to a landfill.

The glass-walled thickening area is refreshed with outside air 12 times an hour, but it still smells like a dozen outhouses. Here, the solid components are further treated using a polymer. The long-chain molecule repels the water, which falls away for more processing, leaving behind 95 percent of the solids, which congeal into rolling mounds of brown. This is the heart of what treatment does for us. There’s plenty of perfectly good water to be separated from our waste, because we live in the world’s most water-consumptive country. We use 109 gallons of water per person, per day. That’s far more than in the United Kingdom (28 gallons a day) or even Japan (71). Yet, for the most part, we don’t live with our own waste. We flush it away with lots of water and don’t give it a second thought.

The thickened solids are digested at 98 degrees by anaerobic bacteria for approximately one month. (Methane gas recovered from the digestion process heats the treatment plant and education buildings.) Then, this soil amendment is trucked to farms in eastern Washington to fertilize hops and wheat.

But the water continues on its way. In the secondary treatment building, huge white pipes twist across ceilings. More pipes rise from the floor and curl like fiddlehead ferns. “I call this industrial art,” says Kohler, tipping his head toward the vast works. When he spots a dripping pipe joint, Kohler pulls a slim flashlight out of his pocket to investigate. He types something into his smartphone before moving on.

Treating water in enclosed buildings is one way the plant caps odors, but much of the odor control is done through biochemistry, as smelly hydrogen sulfide is taken from the wastewater as fast as possible. First, bacteria do what they do best—consume the hydrogen sulfide as a food source. The bacteria grow in the wastewater soup, eating up odors. Then chemical scrubbers take a turn. A third step involves activated carbon. But the process most touted at Brightwater is the membrane bioreactor. In this technology, first designed to purify drinking water, wastewater is sucked through porous, spaghetti-sized strands of synthetic material. As the water is pulled through the pores, it leaves behind microscopic contaminants as small as 6 microns, including viruses and some bacteria that aren’t removed in other treatment methods. The membranes can’t filter out some modern pharmaceuticals and chemicals, but even these are reduced in treatment.

In a final step, strong bleach disinfects the water, killing remaining pathogens before the water is released. Some of the water is even reused for flushing Brightwater toilets and watering the landscape, and eventually will be available for reuse outside the facility.

Brightwater welcomes field trips, and public and private events

At the end of the journey: a priceless commodity—clean water—and a few questions: Would cutting down on what we flush save money on sewage treatment? How about using less water generally? These questions lead back to that slick, expensive education center, where schoolchildren touring the facility learn the science behind water treatment, and see where what they’re flushing finally ends up. “We like to teach the kids—and adults—that the same science is happening here as it is in a natural wetland,” says Brightwater education specialist Lansia Jipson. “Nothing ever really goes away; it just changes form.”

It’s part of the larger mission of the center to let people see wastewater treatment first hand and finally grasp the cycle of our water use. “It’s an epidemic in the U.S.—we don’t know where our water, food, clothes or electricity comes from,” says Susan Tallarico, Brightwater Center director. “People are disconnected.”

Brightwater offers a community space, a science lab and an exhibit hall

But perhaps that’s the condition of an older generation. At the education center, kids seem to be learning the lesson. Invited to hang up their “pledges for the planet” beside a sign that reads, one percent of the earth’s water is fresh and available, the kids have some pretty good ideas:

“I pledge to use less toilet paper,” says one. “I pledge to never, ever, put grease down the drain,” says another. A third promises, “I won’t take water for granted.”

Brightwater’s education and community center is open to the public Mon.–Thur., 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Free tours of the treatment facilities are available June 9, July 7 and August 4 (tours run 10 a.m.–2 p.m.; reservations required). Community group tours are available on Tuesdays at 3 p.m. Visit kingcounty.gov/environment/brightwater-center for reservations.


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