A Gamer's Fantacy of Biosolids Master Planning

Fantasy Biosolids

The billboard on I-5 urged me to sign up today for Fantasy Football, but I had other things on my mind. I had listened with half an ear to a podcast discussion of moral equivalency; I had just left a voice mail with a colleague looking for an update on Cape May’s biosolids master plan; and I was headed home to pen an alert for the MABA website on the YouTube movie “biosludged.”  The billboard triggered an “ah hah!” moment! Is there really such a difference between fantasy gaming and biosolids master planning? I mean, what’s more exciting – winning a pretend football game, or cracking the code to provide clean water and restore soils for a resource-starved world? I say we dive into the world of fantasy to build support for our biosolids programs.

Fantasy Football – What is this all about?

I don’t pretend to either understand or wish to understand Fantasy Football. First, I take to high moral ground that football itself is unconscionably destructive (i.e.,chronic traumatic brain injury), so nothing derived from it should be encouraged; but mostly I just don’t understand the game of football. Second, how could a “fantasy” version do anything useful for its players, after all you don’t even need to get off your lazy butt to play it? 

Yet, incredibly, Forbes Magazine says this is a $70 billion market, and the Fantasy Sports Trade Association estimates that 32 million Americans play and spend hundreds of dollars each doing so.  It seems that we are only a couple weeks out from the official kickoff for Fantasy Football offered by ESPNFoxYahoo, the NFL itself and many others; that it’s time to join a league; that you can sign up for advanced research services; and that you can get expert advice and analysis.

Fantasize with me for a moment.  What could we, in the wastewater profession, do with $70 billion annually for clean water and great biosolids products?  A whole lot! 

If we as a society can afford Fantasy Football, we sure as shootin’ ought to be able afford great water resource recovery.

Fantasy Facts and “Biosludged”

I have been paying a lot of attention to fantasy recently, and I suspect I am not alone.  Kurt Andersen, radio host and author, wrote Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire—A 500-Year Historyfrom which he drew a recent Atlantic Monthly article How America Lost its Mind. He says: “Treating real life as fantasy and vice versa, and taking preposterous ideas seriously, is not unique to Americans. But we are the global crucible and epicenter…. It will require a struggle to make America reality-based again.”

Michael Adams, " outspoken consumer health advocate and award-winning investigative journals,” totally agrees with Anderson that Americans have lost the capacity to independently distinguish truth from falsity.  But here’s the ironic twist. For Adams, the "Health Ranger and author of Natural News, the root cause is the “globalists” who control our access to information, in which climate change and vaccines, for instance, are “false narratives” contrived by government.  

One such issue Adams is prepared to set straight is offered in the video BIOSLUDGED trailer - new film from the Health Ranger / Natural News. We learn from Adams that land spreading of biosolids “…is the greatest environmental crime in America.  City leaders get financed kickbacks from the biosludge industry. …we have created really a devastating vector for bioterrorism,” leaving “truly a toxic legacy, for generations to come….” Adams learns from fired EPA scientist David Lewis, author of Science for Sale, that sludge is the “universe of pollution in one product.”

The influence of people like Adams underscores how difficult it is for people to distinguish fantasy from non-fantasy, and real news from fake news, and suggests there is a powerful allure in our culture to fantasy and fake.

Planning Fantasy Cities

Additional evidence of the power of fantasy is in the report that 155 million Americans play computer games, 42% of the population. The average online gamer spends 6.5 hours a week with others online, constituting a major aspect to social interaction in the U.S. Is this a good thing? Yes, if you agree with the TED Talk by Jane McGonigle, Gaming Can Make a Better World, viewed by 4.5 million people.

I am among the slim majority of Americans who are NOT gamers.  But reading about Fantasy Football reminded me of my early fascination with SimCity.  In fact, this is the only game I ever tried to play. It was released in 1989 and is a staple in a genre of RTS, real-time strategy, games, of which it is in a subset termed God Games, and is a further sub-subset example of  City Building GamesIt is not among the dominating and popular MMO games, meaning “massively multiplayer online,” apparently because building a city is a lonely job.  SimCity has had nearly two decades to evolve.  It offers a dozen game offerings, and its most popular version, Sim City 4 , promises “you don’t just build your city; you breathe life into it.”

Where are the Fantasy Sewers?

But, get this, in SimCity you can’t build sewers and WRRF. You breathe life into your city, but, incredibly enough, with no need for sewers.  Neither do you need to use nearby farms for biosolids application nor learn to handle solids in a way that avoids odors! Hard to believe, right?!

Are sewers so hidden from public view and are our treatment facilities so remote that developers of city building games have missed this major component of city-building infrastructure?

Apparently, the answer is yes.  I believe this gaping hole in SimCity is symptomatic of a gaping hole in the public’s capacity to image and understand the role of wastewater treatment and resource recovery in their lives. And I believe this is a problem for us. If there were sewer and biosolids subprograms in SimCity and other city building games, then at least the gamers, today and in the future, might come to appreciate the importance of the work we do.

Our Biosolids Fantasy Games

Truth is, we play a bit of our own city building games, in the form of Biosolids Management Plans. Some of our most rewarding professional work is projects where we invite agency staff, consultants, regulators, equipment manufacturers and the public to image a future -- a new and better world for biosolids.  Sounds like “biosolids gaming” to me.

For many months, I had been pestering my friend Deirdre, and on June 5th I received word from her, addressed to “Grand Master Bill,” that Orange County (CA) Sanitation District’s (OCSD) had publicly posted its Biosolids Master Plan.  In my book, this plan ranks among the most complex biosolids simulation games of any I know of.

This was the culmination of nearly a two-year planning process. You can get a recap in the OCSD Executive Summary of Biosolids Master Plan.  But this is just one item in a folder of a head spinning 12 documents. The planning process considered options for 20 years of capital improvements at two large WRRFs. The evaluation examined 9 biosolids markets, 18 kinds of biosolids products, and 10 biosolids processes. It utilized two kinds of evaluation tools: a Life-Cycle Cost model called SWEET (the Solids‐Water‐Energy‐Evaluation Tool) and the CDP Tool (Criterium Decision Plus Tool) for handling non-cost factors.  Applying these tools resulted in 19 “highest-scoring product and market pairs” and 20 “medium-scoring” pairs. All said and done, OCSD will continue to produce Class B cake at one plant, and have ready in 2030 Class A biosolids cake from the second plant for land application.

This game went on for years, was the closest I know to a type of MMORGP (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) we have in the wastewater profession, and it had a smashing public roll-out upon its conclusion. In my mind, this is a real fun game, and it was all about biosolids..

Biosolids “Gaming” is Alive and Well in U.S. and Mid-Atlantic

OCSD is complete, but elsewhere in North America major “biosolids gaming” is underway. We are at play out in Victoria, BC ( Residuals Treatment Facility ),  in San Francisco (Biosolids Digester Facilities Project) and the Bay Area ( Bay Area Biosolids to Energy ), in Miami ( Basis of Design), and in Texas (Trinity River Authority’s thermal hydrolysis enhanced digestion) .

Exciting “biosolids games” are in play also in the Mid-Atlantic region. 

  • DELCORA, in implementing a strategic plan in response to new federal sewage sludge incinerator regulations, upgraded its incinerators and has increased regional competition for flows of high strength organic wastes, the same waste that other WRRFs have been eyeing for co-digestion projects.

  • Camden County MUA is a few months away from releasing specs for new digesters and a co-generation project in collaboration with Anaergia, having spent several years playing catch up in producing recyclable biosolids from its paddle dryers.

  • Cape May County MUA, so long ago bold in its installation of innovative composting technology, but disabled by fire, is in sore need of new biosolids infrastructure, but an outcome reflecting its highly seasonal solids production, and is now anticipating emergence of a regional processing facility.

  • Lancaster Area Sewer Authority is nearing completion of its new digesters and dryers, transforming provocatively odorous lime-stabilized stuff into recyclable fertilizer, but now we are eager to see how its new products will fit into the emerging nutrient rules for the Chesapeake watershed.

  • Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission embraced a DC Water-like plan for thermal hydrolysis and mesophilic digestion with its Piscataway WWTP Bio-Energy Project, making a revolutionary change from distributed to centralized processing, yet where will its final product go if MDE and MDA continue to hammer residuals recycling?

  • Loudoun County, VA, has been working on a very long range master plan for its treatment plant and service area, explained in Broad Run Water Reclamation Facility – Interim Biosolids Project, August 2016, Project Fact and Information Sheet.

  • Howard County (MD) Bureau of Utilities embraced “Starting with a product in mind – biosolids management design based on beneficial use goals” and came up with the Little Patuxent Water Reclamation Division Biosolids Project of digestion and drying to produce fertilizer, but like WSSC hopes it will be permitted to use the product locally.

  • Berkeley Country (WV) Public Service Sewer District moved forward with an innovative stabilization process, BCR Environmental’s chemical stabilization process, yet with unresolved issues around vector attraction compliance.

What is more, we also look forward to emerging a HUGE biosolids game as New York City DEP embarks on rebuilding a program for recycling, rather than landfilling, 400,000 tons of biosolids cake.

The Unfulfilled Promise of Fantasy in Our Biosolids Profession

Yet our biosolids gaming is not all that it can be.  The MABA region abounds with experts in biosolids master planning.  I propose we assemble a team of our best master planning engineers, particularly ones who are closet gamers, and pitch to Electronic Arts, the owner of SimCity, and to the other dozen designers of city building games, that we craft fantasy sewerage and biosolids elements for their simulation games. I won’t ask for more than a $1 million.

Another idea… let’s get a video artist to “storyboard” our biosolids master plans, and hire Dirty Job’s Mike Rowe to produce made-for-Discovery Channel kind of movie of wastewater and biosolids infrastructure development. If you watch Rowe’s TEDTalk, “Learning from dirty jobs,” you will see he is sympathetic to our cause. 

We can dream big about how we build the biosolids infrastructure of our future cities, and to do so against shifting technology, uncertain finance, changing regulation, and political resistance. But our dreams may remain fantasies without the kind of support from our customers and from environmental activists who ought to be our allies, not opponents, needed to achieve clean water and better soils. To get to that wonderful place, we may need to dive into unfamiliar popular culture of gaming and movie making to draw in political and financial support.   

Best of all, in doing so, we get to play Fantasy Biosolids.