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  • Agua Nueva facility holds many surprises for visitors

    Jan 26, 2023 | Read More News
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    It's a brisk afternoon at Pima County’s Agua Nueva Water Reclamation Facility, and the first stop on the tour is the gift shop. 

    It's not really a gift shop, of course—that's just what they like to call the headworks building, where rocks, sticks, and other materials that can't be processed are removed from incoming sewage and sent to the landfill. 

    Tim Mason, operations manager at Agua Nueva, pops open one of the screens at the building to show the tour group the contents. 

    RWRD tour"Feel free to take a few things when you leave!" he jokes. Mason leads regular tours of the facility, which is located at 2947 Calle Agua Nueva, west of I-10. He tells the group that objects as unlikely as rings and necklaces have shown up at this stage of the wastewater treatment process. 

    Touring the facility on Jan. 20 is Arizona Forward, a Phoenix-based nonprofit. Alejandra Melgar, operations manager at Arizona Forward, said that the tour was organized as part of an educational program for young leaders in sustainability. 

    “Achieving sustainability requires a holistic point of view, adaptability, and creative innovation,” she said. “Agua Nueva is an amazing example of a county working with its environment and not against it.” 

    The next stop on the tour is the bioreactor, where bacteria are hard at work digesting the organic materials in the wastewater. 

    "We have to keep a consistent temperature for these bacteria," Mason told the tour group. "If we keep them happy, they'll do the job for us!" 

    "I found the process fascinating," said Sara Fitzgerald, a senior sustainability analyst at Salt River Project. "The amount of microbiology used throughout the process was particularly interesting, since it needs to be absolutely perfect before the water can begin the next filtration process." 

    Fitzgerald was also impressed by how few odors there were to be encountered throughout the tour. The facility uses a biofilter to remove odor-causing components from the wastewater. 

    “The team at Agua Nueva has done a tremendous job ensuring the treatment process does not impact the air quality for the city,” she said. 

    Next up is a visit to the clarifiers, where any remaining contaminants settle to the bottom of large basins. Gingerly, several members of the group inch their way out onto the grated walkway and peer down into the water. 

    The water frequently attracts migratory ducks and other birds. A large flock suddenly soars overhead, eliciting excited gasps from the tour group. 

    "Every wastewater plant I've worked at, we always see all sorts of wildlife," Mason said. 

    The birds can come and go as they please, but one thing that can't—or shouldn't—leave the facility is rain. Mason points to the retention basins near the plant's entrance that are designed to collect any rainwater that falls on the grounds of the facility. Any rain that might come into contact with unprocessed wastewater needs to be collected and treated so that it doesn’t contaminate groundwater. 

    Once the process is complete, the treated water is used to recharge the aquifer, for irrigation, or for replenishing the Santa Cruz River. 

    Careful planning has gone into every single aspect of daily operations at the Agua Nueva facility. It was built to replace the old Roger Road treatment facility and began running at full capacity in August 2014. 

    Operated by 17 staff, Agua Nueva runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, serving an estimated half a million people in the Tucson area. Currently, the facility treats 25 million gallons of wastewater every day. 

    "It runs smoothly here," said Ron Abel, project manager at Jacobs, the engineering and construction firm which operates the facility for the Pima County Wastewater Reclamation Department. "We really don't have too many hiccups." 

    Julia Colbert, program manager at Sustainable Cities Network at Arizona State University, said she was impressed by the safety precautions in place at the facility. 

    "It was very impactful to see how Pima County is committed to the health and safety of residents based on the history of water quality in the area," she said. 

    Tour member Sophie Dessart, manager of communications and public affairs for Florence Copper, agreed.

    “One of my biggest takeaways from the tour was how we are able to tackle the challenge of limited water resources through a plethora of different, innovative methods,” said Dessart. “It gives me hope for future solutions to further diversify our water supply in Arizona.”