America says swimming is its number-one Summer Olympic event. But let’s talk about number two.
We wondered, because no one else will, how an Olympic swimmer would fare in an environment more unusual than a 50-meter chlorinated pool.
Could a US Team swimmer successfully endure laps in these long bubbling channels known as aeration tanks? or perhaps the in-ground-pool-like tanks nearby?
First, such a thing would not be a good idea, and the topic is not an invitation to try it. But second, the hypothetical does make for interesting discussion regarding the treatment process and the water’s physical properties along the way.
We asked our Enterprise Biosolids Residuals Superintendent Kathryn Crestani that question, turning our attention to two tanks along our common tour route: our clarifiers, and our aeration tanks.
First, what are these tanks for?
The round or rectangular tanks known as clarifiers slow the incoming wastewater down, allowing heavy particles to sink to the bottom while floating grease is skimmed off the top.
The long channelized aeration tanks are pumped with oxygen bubbles which sustain good bacteria (the good bacteria consume bad bacteria in what’s known as biological treatment). The narrow aeration channels are about 15 feet deep. The clarifiers are about 12 feet deep.
What would happen if you fell in, or if someone tried swimming in them?
In the unlikely event that someone fell, it’s likely they’d already be close enough to a railing or ledge for support. We do have life rings stationed around our tanks for emergency assistance.
While 12 feet deep, the clarifiers’ water is still or very slow moving. If you fell in, you likely could swim to an edge without further issue. Swimming with an Olympian’s strength in the murky waters would be gross, but doable.
But the aeration tanks are different: Because a person is less buoyant in an aerated liquid, it is much more difficult to tread water.
If Olympians swam vigorously enough, they could remain afloat. But it wouldn’t be easy. Again, this is exactly why we have safety precautions to prevent accidents, and equipment like safety harnesses and life rings close by in case of danger.
And remember, this is wastewater we’re talking about. Many criticized Rio’s water quality during the last summer Olympic games for athletes and beachgoers, but even that is no comparison to the water making its way through our treatment process.
Once someone were to exit one of these tanks safely, all of our treatment plants have emergency showers for the initial decontamination. We then have personal showers for secondary clean-up, and of course, you’d have a hospital visit for follow-up treatment.
Training for Olympics takes years. Thankfully, the wastewater treatment process only takes about 24 hours for water to enter the plant, receive full treatment (including disinfection during the recreational season), and be released to the environment safely. Health and safety matter to all of us.
Which is why we’ll leave the swimming to sports venues better suited for healthy competition.