Take a look inside the Dillon Water Treatment Plant, which filters 141,000 gallons a day
What would a day without water look like in Summit County?
That’s the question officials in Dillon were asking community members as they opened the doors Wednesday for tours of the Dillon Water Treatment Plant as part of the Value of Water’s Imagine a Day Without Water campaign — a national movement asking people to stop and consider the hard work that goes into getting one of our most precious resources from mountain peaks and rivers into taps and bottles.
“I think it’s important for people to find out that their water doesn’t just magically appear, and that it’s a very complex process that happens from the time we divert water to the time it rolls through your tap,” Dillon’s water utility superintendent Mark Helman said. “So this is about teaching people about that and providing that education, so they’re more aware of how they’re using that water. I think we all need to be more aware and educate ourselves on better ways to do that.”
The Dillon Water Treatment Plant is a relatively small operation, at least in comparison to some Front Range plants that Helman noted sometimes spread across 25 acres and filter through 50 million gallons of water a day.
The plant, which is responsible for distributing water to Dillon’s 3,200 residents, is tucked away off Summit County Road 51 and Tenderfoot Trail Road. It is run by three town employees along with a lot of help from an advanced computing system that Helman called the “main heartbeat” of the plant. The system monitors all of the facility’s processes and maintains alert systems on about 50 functions to notify staff of any malfunctions. The alert system can even trigger a complete shutdown of the plant under certain conditions, such as a sudden spike in turbidity (a measure of water clarity based on particulate levels) or pH levels (a measure of how acidic or basic water is).
“Drinking water is highly regulated,” Helman said. “So we have all these federal and state regulated limits on turbidity, chlorine levels, fluoride levels, pH and more as far as ranges we want to keep our treated water at. So we’re shooting for this range and that range, and these all have alarms, and it can shut itself off in a matter of seconds so we can evaluate what’s going on.”
The town’s water employees don’t rely entirely on the alert system to take important measurements in the water. Instead, they also take their own samples every day at an in-house lab to make sure the computer readings are accurate.
Helman said total shutdowns are rare but do occur on occasion — typically during spring runoff when the flow from Straight Creek is particularly dirty. Potential malfunctions aside, the plant’s operations are fairly straightforward — functioning as a kind of assembly line.
The source water from Straight Creek comes into the plant through a single pipe. From there, the water runs through a massive clarifier tank. The water mixes with what Helman called a filter aid, which essentially takes suspended and tiny particulates in the water and clumps them together for easier removal in the filtration process.
For most of the process, the plant relies on gravity to keep the water moving, which Helman noted explains the plant’s location downslope from the creek and upslope from Dillon. But during filtration, the plant ramps up the pressure to push water through the filter system.
This is the only time in the process the water is separated into more than one pipe, splitting into one of three ultrafiltration skids. Each skid supports 48 individual filters capable of trapping particulates as small as 0.1 microns. For reference, a human hair is about 75 microns and a human red blood cell is about 5 microns. In Helman’s words, the filters can capture particles that are “pretty freakin’ small.”
Once the water exists the filters, it’s all collected again into a single pipe and flushed into the clear well, a 20,000-gallon tank resting underneath the facility. It’s there that the water undergoes chemical treatment.
“That’s for chlorine and chemical contact time,” Helman said. “The water has to sit with chlorine for the disinfection cycle for a certain amount of time. That is the contact time, or CT, which is a big calculation with variables like volume, temperature, pH and a lot of different numbers that get plugged into a formula to give you your CT. … That’s just to make sure nothing is growing in people’s pipes, like algae. That’s how we ensure it gets from here to people’s homes in a sanitary manner.”
This is also where the town adjusts pH levels in the water to make it less corrosive, buffering the pH level from about 7.3 to about 8.4 using sodium hydroxide, or caustic soda. Finally, the water flows to a storage tank and into the distribution system.
“Water quality is a big thing,” Helman said. “Our water quality is so pristine that our treatment process just doesn’t have to be that involved.”
In total, Helman estimated it takes two to three hours for the entire process. The plant is capable of producing 1.3 million gallons of clean water a day, though there’s hardly a need for treatment at that scale. Helman said the plant typically filters through about 141,000 gallons a day.
“That’s the whole treatment process in a nutshell,” said Helman, who continued to reflect on the impact modern water treatment processes have made around the country. “It’s a cool process that I think people are starting to get aware of more so than in the past. We live in a privileged place where we can go to any tap, any restaurant and really almost anywhere and fill up your water bottle and not get sick. Safe drinking water has saved a lot of people’s lives. It’s good that we don’t have cholera and typhoid, and we aren’t poisoning ourselves with our own sewage. We’ve learned over the years how to do some really interesting and smart things, and it’s cool to be a part of.”
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