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Mixing Art and Technology: North America’s Largest Membrane-filtration Sewage Plant Opens Near Seattle

The $1.8 billion Brightwater facility, 10 miles northeast of Seattle, eschews old notions of what a sewage plant is. State-of-the-art membrane technology produces reusable water, a trail system allows outdoor recreation, and wetlands give salmon a place to spawn.

Brightwater Seattle King County wastewater water sewage treatment art Buster Simpson irrigation
Photos © Brett Walton / Circle of Blue
Running the length of the entry road, Buster Simpson’s “purple pipe” leaks water treated at Brightwater. Purple is the color of pipe used to convey reclaimed wastewater. Brightwater will produce up to 80,000 cubic meters (21 million gallons) per day of reclaimed water for landscape and farm irrigation.

By Brett Walton
Circle of Blue

SEATTLE, Washington — Driving on Washington’s State Route 9, which runs parallel to the new Brightwater sewage-treatment facility, a visitor would be forgiven if he imagined himself entering a county park or a sculpture garden. From the road, a passenger catches only half-views of the plant, positioned among the sapling-speckled berms, wetlands, and public art on the 46-hectare (114-acre) campus.

For some sewage-treatment facilities — even those that are not immediately visible — a person need only follow his or her nose to it. But that is not the case with Brightwater, which has $US 65 million in odor-control technology. The smelly sections of the facility are sealed, and the air is scrubbed before being released.

“The technology is to the point where we can be a good neighbor,” said Gunnar Sreibers, the project manager for construction, as he led a tour during the plant’s grand-opening celebration on September 24. After a ceremonial “first flush” and a blessing of the waters by members of the Tulalip and Suquamish Indian tribes, thousands of people took facility tours, viewed the art, walked the five kilometers (three miles) of nature trails, and learned about the treatment process.

Gunnar Sreibers Brightwater King County Seattle Washington membrane filter sewage water wastewater treatment
Photos © Brett Walton / Circle of Blue
Gunnar Sreibers, the project manager for construction, stands besides pipes conveying wastewater to the membrane filters. The filters can treat an average of 136,000 cubic meters (36 million gallons) per day.

Decades ago, sewage-treatment plants were plunked down without consulting neighboring communities — usually where minorities or the poor lived. But, in both its design and engineering, Brightwater, the largest membrane wastewater treatment plant in North America, is one of many facilities at the dawn of a new era for sewage treatment, one in which water is reused and the facility is no longer a local blight.

A New Day
“I could spend hours talking about water,” James Goetz told Circle of Blue just a few days earlier over lunch in Seattle’s Wallingford district. Goetz was the lead engineer who chose the site for the $US 1.8 billion facility, and he was also the assistant project manager for the plant’s design. The modern era of wastewater treatment in the United States began in 1972 with the passage of the landmark Clean Water Act. Goetz has seen both sides, since his career as a wastewater engineer began two years prior, in 1970, with CH2M Hill, now one of the world’s top engineering firms.

“When I started out,” Goetz said, “wastewater-treatment plants were moving from primary treatment to secondary treatment, because of water quality standards set by the Clean Water Act.” Primary treatment removes the solids, while secondary treatment uses microorganisms to eat up organic matter, in effect, accelerating the degradation that would occur naturally.

“Brightwater is an impressive facility that integrates public space and the landscape,” he continued. “It’s a work of art, really.”

Ellen Sollod blown glass microbial microbe sewage wastewater water treatment Brightwater Seattle King County Washington
Photos © Brett Walton / Circle of Blue
The artist Ellen Sollod, who is reflected in the lower left, used blown glass to create microbial forms, illustrating the biological components of wastewater.

Artistic Expression
And there are plenty of pieces of work on display, as well. The 13 pieces of public art — from sculptures to glasswork — that have been placed throughout the site are not just tacked on for glitz. Because so much of the treatment process is hidden — covered behind pipes and tubes — the art is part of Brightwater’s educational mission, according to Annie Kolb-Nelson, the media spokesperson for King County’s wastewater-treatment division, which owns and operates the new facility.

Make Way for Salmon
The Brightwater site was formerly an auto-wrecking yard. As part of the facility’s stormwater-management plan, more than 60 percent of the 46-hectare (114-acre) campus has been transformed into wetlands and forest. Now, salmon and trout use the ponds and restored streams as a place to spawn.

The most visible piece of art is a segmented purple pipe that runs the length of the site’s entrance road and drips water on ornamental grasses below. The color purple was chosen because it conveys reusable wastewater. Other works highlight the science and infrastructure that undergird the treatment system.

Three of the artists have been part of the design team since planning began in 1999.

“I have to keep pinching myself to remember that the experience was real,” said Jann Rosen-Queralt, who worked with the architects and engineers. Rosen-Queralt — who lives in Baltimore, Maryland, and commuted periodically to Seattle for seven years — said the collaborative design process was unlike anything in her professional experience.

Brightwater sewage water wastewater treatment plant King County Seattle engineer membrane filter
Photos © Brett Walton / Circle of Blue
Workers walk through the mechanical room underneath the membrane filters.

“The smiles you see today are not smoke and mirrors,” she said. Indeed, it was difficult to find anyone who had worked on the project who did not want to explain how marvelous it was.

Clean Water, At A Cost
Despite the evident bonhomie at the grand opening, Brightwater does have an uglier side; and the root cause is money.

The construction cost of the project increased slightly — just over 3 percent — from the baseline estimate. However, one of the machines boring a 21-kilometer (13-mile) conveyance tunnel got stuck, which delayed the tunnel’s completion by a year, while a new contractor was brought aboard. Additionally, a contract dispute with another tunnel contractor is currently being settled in court.

Though the construction cost has been finalized, how to pay for it is still being argued.

Brightwater sculpture water molecule wastewater sewage treatment Buster Simpson Seattle King County Washington
Photos © Brett Walton / Circle of Blue
At the end of Brightwater's entry road, visitors see a representation of a water molecule, designed by Buster Simpson. The molecule is also the starting point for Simpson's "purple pipe" sculpture.

Brightwater — part of a regional wastewater system operated by King County, which is home to Seattle — was built to accommodate growth. When the construction plan was drawn up, officials from the three-county service area agreed that “growth pays for growth” and that new customers would foot most of the bill through “connection charges” to plug into the system.

But Seattle’s City Council contends that the county is not charging enough and that city customers are paying more than they should, according to the Seattle Times.

In the end, say those involved with the plant, the costs will be worth it. Sreibers, the construction manager, said that the public wanted the best available technology so that the plant would not have to be retrofitted to meet stricter water-quality regulations.

Artist Cris Bruch stormwater water wastewater sewage treatment Brightwater Seattle King County Washington sculpture
Photos © Brett Walton / Circle of Blue
To represent the hidden pipe network, the artist Cris Bruch created this cascade, which funnels stormwater from the roof.

The membrane-filtration system — most commonly used to purify drinking water — produces water that can be used for irrigation and industrial processes. The water is 70 percent cleaner than conventional secondary treatment, and the facilities take up 40 percent less space. King County already has a supply contract with a golf course for a portion of this treated water. These opportunities for water reclamation, explained spokesperson Kolb-Nelson, mean that more water can be kept in rivers for fish and that agriculture in the area can be more sustainable.

“We think this is an example of how a wastewater plant can be an amenity, an asset for the community,” she said.

Goetz, the lead engineer, is excited by the final product, what he sees as the “next step” for wastewater systems in the United States. Officially, he retired from CH2M Hill in 2007, but Goetz stayed on the project to see it through to completion. Now, he’s enjoying his leisure from the houseboat he has lived on for 30 years.

“I get to enjoy the water from my home, and I got to make it a little cleaner during my career,” he said. “I think that’s perfect.”

Brett Walton is a Seattle-based reporter for Circle of Blue. Walton can be reached at brett@circleofblue.org.

Artist Jane Tsong Brightwater water wastewater sewage treatment King County Seattle Washington blessing no beginning no end circle the earth blessed water of life
Photos © Brett Walton / Circle of Blue
Before the treated water leaves Brightwater, it passes through this tank with a "blessing" designed, by the artist Jane Tsong.


6 Comments
  1. [...] Jane Tsong’s Creek Freak article on Seattle’s new wastewater facility, also covered at Circle of Blue.) LD_AddCustomAttr("AdOpt", "1"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Origin", "other"); [...]

  2. “Decades ago, sewage-treatment plants were plunked down without consulting neighboring communities — usually where minorities or the poor lived.” My comment is really? This seems like an awfully broad condemning statement without any facts to back this up. My experience has been entities sited treatment plants as far out of town as possible. Property values no doubt went down and often lower level housing or factories built up around the plants using the cheaper land as the cities or towns grew out toward the plant. So do you have examples where treatment plants were plunked down in the middle of existing poor neighborhoods? Hyperion in LA…mmm no that is Santa Monica. Orange County plant..mmm pretty nice neighborhood .. San Diego Point Loma? All the plants in the Las Vegas Valley? Built in the middle of the desert until the valley grew out and zoners allowed mobile home parks right up to the fences.. Also NLV just completed a 25 mgd membrane plant including an interceptor for about $280 million. Your article should explain more about what $1.2 billion dollars bought besides art. That is expensive art.

  3. Saying that usually happens is too strong a statement. Demographics are sometimes a factor, but topography, existing infrastructure other local political concerns are generally more salient. However, several high-profile cases from the 1960s and 1970s do come to mind: Bayview-Hunters Point in San Francisco and the North River plant in New York City.

    The art program cost $4 million.

  4. [...] Mixing Art and Technology: North America’s Largest Membrane-filtration Sewage Plant Opens Near Seattle by Kai Olson-Sawyer | 10.20.2011 | No Comments | | Read the Article [...]

  5. [...] and odor control technology at the plant. It has been noted of the Brightwater Facility that a “visitor would be forgiven if he imagined himself entering a county park or a sculpture garden.” Power and transportation infrastructure in many locations similarly benefits from “Asking the [...]

  6. […] of America’s largest, most successful implementation of art paired with infrastructure at the Brightwater Treatment Plant in Washington State.  In this case, because the state legislature mandates that a hefty percentage […]

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