WIN WITH WATER: It’s a Dirty Job, But Someone’s Got to do it!

Mike Carle, Chief Operator Hampton WWTP and NH Water Pollution Control Association, Past President

The information contained in this article is not intended as legal advice and may no longer be accurate due to changes in the law. Consult NHMA's legal services or your municipal attorney.

When you stop to think about it, the importance of water is undeniable. From the water we use to make our coffee in the morning to the water we brush our teeth with at bedtime- water touches every aspect of our lives. Luckily for us, we don’t need to think about it much. In New Hampshire, water plentifully surrounds us in our lakes, rivers, and oceans. Our taps run and our toilets flush. There are professionals out there whose job is to make sure you don’t have to think about these things. So far, this series has touched on the people who provide the water. In the first installments of our Win With Water! series we talked about the importance of having a reliable source for drinking water; but what happens to that water after it leaves the tap? In this installment, let me introduce you to the people who clean the water after you use it: Wastewater Operators. Water is a limited resource that we are entrusted to take care of. You all remember the water cycle from grade school, it is a closed loop. The average American uses 82 gallons of water each day, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. In New Hampshire that adds up to 110 million gallons each day. But what happens to all that water once it goes down the drain? In most towns and cities, it goes to a wastewater treatment plant. Even if you have a septic tank, these facilities treat what the septic haulers pump out. There is a whole industry devoted to this process. The engineers who design the plants, suppliers who provide the specialized equipment, and trained operators across the state all work together to treat the wastewater to water quality standards that are safe to return to the environment.

water cycle

This has been a fitting year to focus on the water infrastructure as 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, that established water quality standards and requirements to make our rivers and lakes swimmable, fishable, and safe. Wastewater Operators welcome this renewed opportunity to focus on and raise awareness of infrastructure and technology. The treatment plants that were built in the 70’s have worked well to help us remove waste and return safe water back to the environment for years, but like any piece of major equipment, they eventually need replacing. Wastewater infrastructure is a lot like your car: even with regular maintenance and cleaning, that 1972 Ford can’t possibly be retrofitted to compete with the safety and fuel-efficiency of the latest 2022 models!  

As stewards of the environment, wastewater operators do their best with the available technology to remove as many contaminants as possible. Over this last half century, wastewater treatment technology has progressed from solely removing the heaviest of contaminates to being able to not only discharge clean water but also produce useful resources such as fertilizer and even electricity.

Some of our biggest challenges are still emerging. We are always discovering new compounds that can cause harm. 50 years ago, no one thought that putting that waterproof coat in the laundry would cause any harm. Because the PFAS chemicals that make up the waterproofing don’t break down in the environment, over the years they come back to us through our food and water. Wastewater plants are not designed to remove “forever” chemicals such as PFAS, but we are doing our best to be part of the solution.  Our challenge is to develop the technology to keep these compounds that don’t go away from reentering the watershed. Sometimes the answer is to prevent these chemicals from entering the water to begin with.

Wastewater Operators bridge the loop between the clean water we drink and the healthy source water we all use. We often work out of sight and out of mind, but every once in a while, we ask that you think about what you would do without us next time you flush the toilet.

win with water