Pump house to poop house: a super-special day with SAWS

End of the line. After your dietary richness has been extracted, nearly drinking-quality water rushes out the outfall of Dos Rios wastewater plant into Medina River.

Greg Harman
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Saturday, while you were sleeping in, watching old cowboy movies, and demanding someone squeeze your softening oranges (we know who you are!), I was “up and at â??em,” as they say, with about 30 other irrepressibly curious San Anto minds.

We had committed our day to learning all we could about the stunningly sophisticated Edwards Aquifer that supplies our drinking water and the San Antonio Water System that brings that water to and from our homes.

After an entire day in the capable hands of our water utility's friendly educator Greg Wukasch as part of SAWS' “Rain to Drain” program, I'm going to straight up consider myself “handled.”

Field-tripping, we crawled around Bear and Cub caves at Stone Oak Park with Geary Schindel of the Edwards Aquifer Authorityâ?¦

Checked out the Herculean pumps and Cold War-era circuitry at the SAWS Basin Pump Station with Raul Gonzalez Jr. â?¦

And â?? my personal fave â?? watched poop water become clean-ish water at the Del Rio Water Recycling Center with Wukasch (below) and Wayne Druilhet (pointing in outfall pic, top) down Toyota Plant way.

Before beating it for the wastewater plant, Wukasch encouraged us into the washrooms at SAWS Central, with a challenge that proves him worthy of navigating any intimate Harman family reunion.

“I encourage you to use the bathroom, then we'll race it to see if we can beat it there,” he said. Viva potty humor!

The dozens of common egrets, each and every one having signed a health waiver for the consumption of potentially deadly bacteria, I'm sure, gorged themselves on the befouled bugs around the supposedly odor-controlling ferrous sulfate injections and across the skimming ponds.

I must say, my respect for this water utility has mostly improved as I have learned more about it. Not only does San Antonio sit atop some of the best freshwater in the country, but (after a federal lawsuit forced them to reform in the '90s) SAWS has become one of the most esteemed water utilities out there.

Our recycled water program (secondary-treated “non-potable” water) is the largest such program in the nation. Just look for all those purple pipes feeding into some area golf courses, a variety of industrial facilities, and even supplementing the San Antonio River itself when the springs at the headwaters dry up.

Ah, but that luxurious poop! It's been decades since we piped it all into Mitchell Lake* for disposal. The holy Clean Water Act ended that. Since, we've learned there really is no such thing as “waste.”

By this summer, I'm told, a full 80 percent of our so-called reclaimed “biosolids” will be sold off for compost. If that weren't enough, the methane captured from all our flowing fecal material is used to cook the future compost “cake.”

Soon, even the leftover methane, now burned off, will be sold as an alternative fuel source:

From Sustainablog.org:

Officials estimate that they will be able to capture as much as 900,000 cubic feet of methane annually from this big old pile of people poop.

But what do you do with nearly a million tons of methane? If you are a high school kid, you might get a matchbook and invite some friends with a camera for a rip-roaring laugh. If you are more mature and entrepreneurial officials in San Antonio, however, you sell that happy-crappy gas to Ameresco Inc., an energy-services company based in Massachusetts, for use as a fuel source.

San Antonio officials are as happy as poo-pie, of course, since they foresee profits approaching $250,000 a year for the methane they sell—in addition to the money they already make from selling treated water and compost made from converted bio-solids.

They are also happy to be helping the Earth, twice over, by capturing the methane for use as fuel and then making it available for use. As Steve Clouse, the SAWS chief operating officer, puts it, “We're very pleased that we can capture and sell this gas, which is good for San Antonio's air quality and puts this renewable energy resource to work for San Antonio.”

Surely, after this “poop-to-power” project takes off, you'll see your annual contribution refunded in year-end settlements. However, it may be up to you to keep a detailed (drumroll) “log” (rimshot) of your daily offering.

(Okay. That last item is my own proposal and hasn't been officially absorbed by the SAWS leadership ... yet.)

Perked your interest? Contact Wukasch for future R-t-D tour dates.

*She's come a long way since serving as the city's cesspool.
Check out Mitchell Lake today!