Dear Water Plant,
I am in the 4th grade and our class is learning about ecosystems. And we read an article about the Puget Sound and the sewage spill. I am highly concerned about the Puget Sound, it could affect ocean life like fish, because they take in water a lot with their gills. I hope you can fix it soon.
Christine Merker’s fourth- graders were upset.
Her students attend Catharine Blaine Elementary School, located in Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood. The western part of Magnolia is made up of steep bluffs towering over Puget Sound.
“Many of my students have grown up playing on the beaches of Discovery Park and Golden Gardens,” says Merker. “This event has hit close to home for them.”
These students had just learned about ecosystems when unprecedented flooding damaged King County’s West Point Treatment Plant in Discovery Park. To protect the plant and workers, an emergency bypass pipe sent untreated stormwater and sewage to Puget Sound waters in two storm events. Crews began immediately to restore the treatment plant, working around the clock. Even though the bypass was over, the treatment plant could not provide the usual high quality treatment while it was being restored. For over two months, the plant would operate at reduced treatment standards.
At the time of the incident, Merker’s students were studying local environmental issues. They followed news reports and talked about the West Point flooding event with their parents. They were highly concerned about the marine ecosystems and its residents. They wanted to know more.
On March 21, their letters arrived at West Point with an introduction by their teacher.
“I want my students to learn that their voice has value,” wrote Christine Merker,” and that they have a responsibility to speak out for those who do not have a voice.”
She continued, “It would mean a lot to our class if you would write to us and update us on the progress of this issue.”
At King County’s Wastewater Treatment Division (WTD), we put a premium on public engagement and education. The student’s letters created an opportunity to reach out and start a dialogue about King County’s clean water system, how we protect our waters, and what we are doing to restore high quality treatment.
Instead of just writing an email response, we contacted Ms. Merker and offered to come to her classroom for a session including wastewater education and discussion about their letters. The offer was accepted with a lot of enthusiasm by students who had signed off with notes like, “P.S. I hope that you listen”.
On April 4, Brightwater Education Director Susan Tallarico led a loud and lively, hands on workshop to teach the fourth-graders about stormwater and wastewater, and the combined sewer system. The students found out how much they already knew about the water cycle and how we affect it. They teamed up for a sometimes soggy test of how well common paper items break down in model “toilets”.
Then the students learned about what happened at West Point on Feb. 9. Their letters told us they already knew how hard crews were working to restore the treatment plant.
“A lot of the kids in my class are mad at you and the people working there,” said one student. “I would really like to thank you though. I know you and the other workers have been working hard, doing all you can.”
The students learned that water quality monitoring results for Puget Sound fell within the normal range for the season by the West Point outfall. They found out that no sick fish or animals were observed after the bypass. They heard how WTD is posting as much information as possible on the Web for people to follow our progress and find data, plans and reports.
Most importantly, they learned that their voices had value.
“You sent letters in your words with your concerns to your government, said Monica Van der Vieren, Community Relations. “And we heard you. That’s why we’re here to talk to you today.”
“You all need to give yourselves a round of applause for doing exactly what you should do: contacting government to express your thoughts and ask for information and action,” she told them.
There is never enough time to answer all the questions of engaged, high-energy fourth-graders. We hope they take us up on our invitation to tour our treatment plants someday and keep asking those questions. We hope they learn about how we all make water dirty, up close and personal at the facility that cleans it.
The students promised to send us more questions, and we promised to keep answering them. Someday, Ms. Merkel’s fourth-graders will be voters, ratepayers, and maybe even decision makers. The future of clean water systems will pass on to their generation. They will be the voice for the Puget Sound and all of our waters.