Destin Water User’s wastewater treatment facility is a place that people probably don’t think about often—or ever.
It’s understandable. Who wants to think about human waste?
But after taking a tour of DWU’s facility, day-to-day activities such as flushing the toilet, washing the dishes, taking a shower, or filling up a water bottle start to look a little different.
DWU serves the city of Destin and other parts of Okaloosa County, from the Mid Bay Bridge to the Marler Bridge on the north side of U.S. Highway 98, and from the Marler Bridge to the county line on the south side of U.S. 98.
Due to the number of tourists who visit the area throughout the year, the number of people that DWU’s system accommodates fluctuates from 15,000 in January and February to between 50,000 and 60,000 people in July and August.
“It’s a huge difference, and we have to be prepared any weekend, Mother’s Day weekend, Easter weekend, spring break, to turn on the tap and treat that water. We’re never sure how much water is coming through,” said DWU’s general manager Lockwood Wernet.
The wastewater facility at DWU is made up of five mini plants that make up one larger facility, creating a flexible system so that certain areas can be turned on or off depending on the influx of water.
When a Destin resident flushes the toilet, the wastewater travels through pipes to one of DWU’s 82 lift stations that are dotted throughout the six square miles of the facility’s service area.
Each day, people drive past these inconspicuous looking lift stations that are actually deep holes in the ground covered by a heavy metal set of doors.
Lift station superintendent Rick Martin opened the doors of a lift station ironically named “P-00,” which is located on the corner of Airport Road and Industrial Park Road near the Texaco gas station.
A pungent, unpleasant smell wafted up from the hole as a stream of dirty water poured into its depths. From here, the raw sewage is transported to DWU’s wastewater treatment facility, where it goes to the “dirtiest” part of the plant.
The water from the lift station dumps into a mechanical box and travels through a screen where baby wipes, paper towels, toys, jewelry, feminine hygiene products, and other trash is removed and then thrown away separately.
“Our process is biological, so the screen removes as much trash as it can and then it travels to the other side of the plant where sand and grit is removed,” said DWU operations manager Monica Autrey.
Aluminum sulfate is added to the still-brown water after this step. The chemical compound acts as a magnet to clump dirt particles together, making it easier for the water to be cleaned.
The water is then pumped to another concrete barrier, where microbes feast on dirty particles and the water swirled around in what looks like a brackish, fast-moving whitewater river.
“We like to tell the elementary kids that it looks like chocolate milk,” said wastewater operations manager Logan Law.
Law explained that the smell of the water starts to shift from the nostril-singing scent of human waste to an earthy, dirt-like smell during this step of the process.
“That’s when you know the process is working,” Law said.
Throughout the water treatment process, DWU conducts tests in on-site laboratories to determine cleanliness levels as it moves throughout the plant.
In the final steps of the cleaning process, chlorine gas is added to the water to disinfect it and kill bacteria. The chlorine levels are closely monitored through digital systems that read the level of the chemical in the water.
“If for some reason our chlorine levels drop below a one, gates will open automatically that would send the water back through our reject system. We’ve added a lot of automation in the last few years,” Law said.
After it moves through the chlorine channels, an Archimedes' screw transports the water to another concrete structure higher above ground. The pool-like structure uses cloth barriers to remove sand, silt, dirt and grease particles from the water.
DWU’s biggest issue when it comes to wastewater is grease. The white particles sit atop the water and require several processes of removal before it’s completely eliminated.
“For example, we use the broiler a lot in our home,” said Wernet. “Don’t pour that down the drain. Salad dressing, and other processed foods have oils in them and it all adds up and comes to us through the waste stream.”
According to Law, a contractor from Alabama comes to pick up the brown, dirt-like “sludge” or microbes and bugs that are now considered solid waste after the treatment process.
“It makes great fertilizer. If you go into Home Depot and see Milorganite, that’s wastewater sludge that’s just been treated one step further.”