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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Corkscrew Living Machine: Where does it go?

Air Date: Week of

In southwest Florida, Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary has become one of the state's hottest tourists destinations. This ancient cypress swamp is a favorite with birdwatchers who flock there year round to see rare birds. A sharp increase in tourists has demanded changes at the Sanctuary, including a need for more toilets at the Visitor's Center. But, instead of constructing a traditional wastewater treatment facility, Corkscrew staff decided to try something new. They built what's called a "Living Machine" to deal with the wastewater. Alexis Muellner explains.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
In southwest Florida, Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary has become one of the state's hottest tourist destinations. The Audubon Society site features a boardwalk through miles of an ancient cypress swamp. The spot is favored by birders, who flock there year-round to search for blue heron, red-shouldered hawks, wood storks, and barred owls. The growth in tourism put pressure on the sanitary facilities, but instead of constructing a traditional sewage treatment system, the Corkscrew staff decided to try something different. Taking a page from the pioneering work of John Todd and others, they built what's called a Living Machine to deal with the wastewater. Alexis Muellner explains.

(Children's voices)

MUELLNER: A group of 25 youngsters from a Fort Myers nature camp has just arrived at Corkscrew Swamp. They're here to explore the sanctuary's 2-mile boardwalk and scout birds, gators, and snakes. But first things first.

MAN: Anybody need to use the restroom?


WOMAN: Everybody head on in there.

MAN: Let's go, we're all heading there.

MUELLNER: The kids are led through a 70-foot-long greenhouse lined with large plastic tanks. They think that they're going to the bathroom, but they soon learn that their tour has just begun. Corkscrew's environmental educator is Brooke Langston.

LANGSTON: Well, good morning, and welcome to Corkscrew Swamp. So what's going on in this building? Why do we have what looks like a greenhouse attached to the restrooms, and why do we have fish outside the restrooms? Tell me what's going on here. Start us off.

MUELLNER: This lesson is taking place in what's called a Living Machine, a system that tries to mimic nature. In this case by cleaning and recycling wastewater without mechanical filtration and with few if any chemicals. Ms. Langston tells her young audience that waste from the building's toilets is being sent to 2 underground septic tanks. It's then channeled into 5 huge tubs bulging with plant life and other swamp critters.

LANGSTON: Also in those holding tanks are something called microbes, or microbiotic animals. Anybody want to take a guess on what those are in those tanks for?

CHILD: Eating bacteria?

LANGSTON: You are so exactly right. Those microbiotic animals that are in there are not only eating bacteria but they're eating everything that you've just flushed. How's that for a fun thought?

CHILD: Oh, yucko! (Others echo.)

MUELLNER: From the tanks the children follow the wastewater as it flows into 2 artificial marshes filled with wetland plants. Like alligator flag, swamp lily, and pickerel weed. The roots of those plants remove nitrogen from the water before it's fed into 3 tall fish tanks containing a black bass and some mosquito-eating gambusia.

(Running water; ambient children's voices)

LANGSTON: Well that's a good question. Is that water or is that pee?

CHILD: Both.

(Running water continues)

LANGSTON: It's water. There may be slight tiny minute traces of biotic matter in it, but is it killing the fish?


LANGSTON: No. Does it smell? Kennedy, stick your nose up on top of that tank and take a deep breath.

(Running water continues)

MUELLNER: From here, the treated water is sent back to the restrooms where it's used again for flushing.

(Running water; fade to footfalls)

MUELLNER: This Living Machine is more than a sophisticated teaching tool. It's a model for the way entire cities might treat and recycle their wastewater in the future. That's why Florida environmental compliance officer Tom Jackson is here today, testing the waters, so to speak.

(A door opens.)

JACKSON: At the very back end of the system, whoo, you can smell the chlorine. And what I'm doing here is just taking a chlorine measurement to make sure that the level is what's required by their permit.

MUELLNER: State officials are intrigued by the Living Machine, but they worry the system doesn't meet health codes. So they require that the water be treated with chlorine before it's sent to the toilets. They also say the Living Machine needs a stronger test. They want to send more sewage directly to the system, bypassing the septic tanks.

(Swirling water)

JACKSON: You can see the clarity of that water. The suspended material and the BOD removal is just excellent, and a lot of that's being done in the pretreatment, in the septic tanks. And what we hope we see them do as their flow increases is to put less of that through the septic tank system and more of it into the Living Machine to actually kind of stress it, get out on the highway and open the throttle up and see how it does.

MUELLNER: For the Audubon Society, that means retrofitting the Living Machine with costly additional equipment. But Neil Harden says it should easily pass all tests. He's a wastewater specialist hired by Audubon to monitor the system.

HARDEN: This was cheaper to build than a conventional plant of the same capacity. It does at least as good a job in treating the water if not better. It requires less electricity. It generates less sludge. It does all this without the nasty side effects of a conventional wastewater plant, that of being loud, smelly, and unsightly.

MUELLNER: Corkscrew's waste treatment machine was built by the Burlington, Vermont, company Living Technologies. There are 18 similar facilities around the country. One treats the waste of 2,000 people in a Vermont community. There's another at a chocolate plant in Nevada. Most recently, a brewery in Sonoma, California, installed one.

(Children's voices and footfalls)

MUELLNER: At Corkscrew, the Living Machine fits the Audubon Society's mission and its pocketbook. And for educator Brooke Langston, it's been a lesson in how much interest can generate from a newfangled toilet using old- fashioned principles.

LANGSTON: You can teach environmental education everywhere you go. You can teach it inside a dirty subway station or out on the most beautiful mountain.

MUELLNER: Or even in a bathroom. For Living on Earth, I'm Alexis Muellner at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, east of Naples, Florida.



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