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Omaha Magazine

Nothing Up Our Sleeves

Mar 14, 2019 09:12AM ● By Charlie Litton

There is magic in this world.

We put our nasty, rancid garbage out on the street. Then it all disappears, like it never happened. Alas, that kind of magic only happens once a week.

Another mystery should inspire daily awe and wonder: Turn a simple valve...Presto!

Glorious, clean, delicious water.

Clean water—even better, the disappearance of yucky water—is not really magic, of course. Like any essential service, it’s just not a day-to-day concern...until it is.

“It’s hard to take it seriously until you flush, and it doesn’t go down,” says Chad Meyer, president of PeopleService Inc., a local wastewater management firm. “I’m the same way. I turn on the faucet, water comes out, life is good. All the pipes are underground, the [water treatment] plants are all outside of town, so you don’t see any of it.”

The Missouri and Platte rivers provide most of Omaha’s tap water. The Metropolitan Utilities District filters, disinfects, and “softens” about 90 million gallons of water every day to remove minerals like calcium and magnesium.

What eventually comes out of the tap in Omaha, says PeopleService CEO Alan Meyer, is better than what you can buy in a bottle.

“From a convenience standpoint, I get it,” says Alan, who is also Chad’s father. “I buy a bottle of water once—for the bottle. Then I just refill it at the tap.”

What happens after we’ve finished with our water is a little more…intense.

Homes in rural areas that are not tied to municipal system will most likely have a septic tank. It is an underground tank where everything goes that is washed or flushed down a drain. Solids settle to the bottom, while liquids trickle out of a perforated pipe on the opposite end. The small holes help the liquid seep into a sandy gravel mixture that helps filter the water as it slowly rejoins the environment. Eventually, a septic service company will need to remind the homeowner about all that magic every few years when it is time to pump out those accumulated solids.

Omaha, however, relies on a centralized sewer system, as do some smaller communities. The City of Omaha Public Works primarily uses two systems: A sanitary system that treats all sewage from homes and businesses, and then a separate stormwater collection system that handles runoff.

All together, Omaha’s treatment facilities serve about 600,000 people with more than 2,000 miles of pipe and more than 50 pumping stations, according to Jim Theiler, assistant director at the City of Omaha Public Works.

The process for cleaning Omaha’s wastewater begins with screening out things like sand, egg shells, whiffle balls, and other large particles that have no business in the sewer system. Once larger particles have settled out, the water is treated to a host of friendly bacteria. The bacteria devour dissolved organic matter that is bound to water molecules.

The water eventually is disinfected with a chlorine process that rids the water of any remaining bacteria or pathogens. A final process removes the chlorine before the water is released into the Missouri River.

The, um, solids? That material emerges from the process as something that sounds like the worst party treat ever—sludge cake.

Plants love it. It is shipped to farms as an effective fertilizer.

While this process has been reduced to the simplest terms, it is not altogether different from what happens in smaller systems. Small communities, housing developments, and industrial outfits sometimes require a custom solution, and that is where companies like Omaha’s PeopleService steps in.

They help monitor and maintain commercial facilities like an egg-cracking facility in Minnesota, but also a more custom system like that of Target Field in Minneapolis, home of the Minnesota Twins. Target Field’s system harvests rainwater, which is then used to wash the stands after games. That same water is then filtered to remove peanuts and crackerjacks, among other things, and fed to the Major League grass.

Operating in five states—Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, Minnesota, and Illinois—PeopleServices have helped upgrade and maintain systems at a few dozen municipalities, ranging in size from the 1,000-person Eagle, Nebraska, to the 12,000-person Maryville, Missouri.

They also maintain and monitor similar systems for housing developments like Riverside Lakes outside Waterloo, Nebraska. Riverside Lakes maintains freshwater and wastewater treatment facilities as its own sanitary improvement district. It draws and treats drinking water from local wells, then eventually releases treated wastewater into the Elkhorn River.

If these systems run into unexpected problems, it is usually a result of running into things that should not be there. The largest offenders are grease and the criminally mislabeled “flushable wipes.”

Chad says that toilet paper is made to break down. So-called flushable wipes aren’t. “Flushable” or not, wipes tend to ball up with congealed grease, creating an unholy mess that clogs pipes and fouls pumps.

“Pumps move that water,” he says. “They get clogged and have to be pulled and cleaned or replaced more often.”

Worse than that, a clogged pump can lead to raw sewage escaping into the environment. Apart from the potential health hazard that would create, such a scenario potentially violates the Clean Water Act. Fines for violating the Clean Water Act cover a span of transgressions that range from $2,500 to $100,000 per day.

It matters little if the leak or spill is accidental.

For example, in 2017, a ruptured pipe in southern California spilled raw sewage into a tributary of the San Diego River. The pipe was repaired only after an estimated 760,000 gallons were pumped into the Los Coches Creek. That eventually cost San Diego County $700,000 after a settlement.

“Thus far,” Theiler says via email, “we have been able to avoid many issues that other communities have with this issue by increasing the preventative maintenance of the pumps at our wastewater treatment plants.”

Meyer adds: “What can go in the trash should go in the trash.”

Not down the drain. And then the delightful magic of ignoring all that we flush can continue.

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This article was printed in the April/May 2019 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Chad Meyer, president, PeopleService Inc

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