Resourceful Water Treatment

By Scott Gjertson

Summer campers, outdoor science students, and retreat groups play and learn at a busy YMCA camp nestled on Glen Cove near the Carr Inlet of Puget Sound in the state of Washington.

The usual camp sounds permeate the drizzly Pacific Northwest air--arrows smacking foam targets, water splashing from canoe paddles, cheers from campers reaching the top of the climbing wall, and cedar crackling in a campfire pit.

Another unusual sound, though, is heard, usually only by maintenance staff. Noisy pumps and air filters are paired with kids laughing and asking questions as they explore the Living Machine--Camp Seymour’s alternative wastewater treatment center.

While the initial intent of installing a Living Machine treatment center at Camp Seymour was to help minimize its footprint on part of the ecologically sensitive Puget Sound, an interesting side benefit is how the treatment center has been transformed into a successful program area.

In addition to the mechanical filters, hydroponic reactors, pumps, and aeration systems--all necessary parts of the treatment process--organic gardens, an oversized greenhouse with teaching labs, a demonstration goldfish pond filled with treated wastewater, and an industrial-sized worm bin are utilized and explored by guests.

Schools that attend the Outdoor and Environmental Education program take an in-depth class titled “Sustainability and the Living Machine.” Camp naturalists guide kids through the wastewater treatment process with several engaging activities, including a scavenger hunt and a small-group activity in which kids try to clean a jar of fake wastewater using tools.

Kids rave about eating raspberries from the vine, making garden mint tea and lavender cabin air-fresheners, seeing a “huge” snake in the greenhouse, and feeding the goldfish--all these exclamations as campers leave the Living Machine area.

But what they’re also leaving with is an increased awareness of the importance of re-using a resource, and learning that water just doesn’t disappear as it goes down the sink or toilet. The program plants seeds with thousands of people every year:

1. There is no such thing as waste.
2. We can work with nature instead of against it.
3. We can think critically about the way we do everyday things.

Following an outdoor science class, a fifth-grade student asks if he can return during free time. This is the essence of environmental education. This is the sound of future generations being inspired.

How Does It Work?
1. Wastewater (including sewage) is piped from camp buildings to septic tanks and then to textile trickling filters. Here, bacteria begin to break down the waste and de-nitrification, while charcoal filters absorb odiferous gasses.

2. The semi-cleaned water then circulates through six 8-foot-deep hydroponic tanks inside the greenhouse. In these oxygenated tanks, plants and microorganisms consume nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, further cleaning the water.

3. Water is then pumped outside to a vertical-flow wetland where waste products are further broken down using wetland plants and organisms.

4. Finally, the water flows through an ultraviolet sterilizer to ensure final water purification.

The bottom line is that no chemicals are used to treat the camp’s wastewater. The system is designed to handle 14,500 gallons of effluent per day.

Where Does The “Clean” Water Go?
1. To an educational pond that demonstrates the water is clean enough to support a healthy ecosystem full of life, including fish, snails, and flowering aquatic plants.

2. To a drip-irrigation system used to keep a green, fertile, and level ball-field lawn year-round.

Future plans include reusing the water in toilets.

How Clean Does The Wastewater Get?
Test results from Aqua Test Inc. (a Washington State Department of Ecology-approved wastewater testing lab) showed the treatment was more effective than design criteria. The Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) was less than 2 milligrams per liter (mg/L). Comparatively, a BOD of less than 30 mg/L is acceptable for discharge to rivers and bays; the system was 15 times better than that minimum standard.

The total fecal coliform standard for beaches and swimming pools is less than 200 per milliliter (mL). The camp’s total coliform was 55 per mL, or almost four times better than that standard.

Was Installing The System Expensive?
The cost of installing a water-treatment system is certainly more expensive than merely maintaining septic tanks; we spent about $580,000. However, we were able to fund over 60 percent of the costs through grants and other contributions. Ten foundations and businesses also contributed to the project.

Why A Living Machine?
The Living Machine at Camp Seymour is the largest in the state and one of a handful across North America. The idea is copied from nature: using a natural ecosystem to clean water. It is its own ecosystem, accelerating nature’s water-purification process.

The Living Machine treats the camp’s wastewater to a tertiary level, the level just below drinking water. Although the treated water is not drinkable, it is much cleaner than wastewater treated by a conventional septic system, which is how many homeowners and other camps around Puget Sound treat their wastewater.

Not only is this an ecologically responsible system, but it provides opportunities for community involvement and education. Camp Seymour is leading the way by treating wastewater in a sustainable way to ensure future generations have cleaner water and a healthier Puget Sound.

Scott Gjertson is the Outdoor and Environmental Education Director at Camp Seymour. He can be reached via e-mail at