In this second episode of Engineering Legends, we’re joined by Susan Tallarico, Education and Engagement Supervisor at the King County Wastewater Treatment Division in Washington about the impact of the Brightwater Center in supporting love, education, and recreation in their local community.
Tiffany Long: Welcome. Thank you for joining us today for another episode of Engineering Legends. I’m Tiffany Long and my co-host is Kelly Rogers. We’re so glad to have you here with us. We’ve got a great segment today that explores love, education and recreation happening at your local wastewater facility.
Susan Tallarico: And then just at the very end the bride goes, we were just wondering what’s that thing over there? What’s that big thing across the parking lot. And we were like, and just started chuckling of course laughing to ourselves and said, well that’s actually a wastewater treatment plant.
Kelly Rogers: My first visit to a wastewater facility. And there was no love or recreation going on there. I was a young marketing assistant and I was helping with the planning of a grand opening ceremony for a small plant in rural Florida. So we’re getting everything set up, the tables, the chairs, displays and the wind was starting to pick up. And we were actually trying to make sure we placed everything into the direction that the breeze wasn’t blowing because it’s a wastewater plant. There was a bit of a smell.
Tiffany Long: Oh boy. So, who was there? Was it just the plant staff?
Kelly Rogers: Oh no. This was a big deal for this town. The mayor, all the councilmen, the contractor, the engineer. I would bet you, we had 150 people there or coming for the day.
Tiffany Long: Oh, wow.
Kelly Rogers: Yeah. And so we had caterers coming. This caterer was renowned for their local fish frys. And so it’s late morning and they’re starting to fry the fish for the big lunch, which too it also has a great smell. And so put yourself at this event, hundred degrees because we’re in Florida in August. Not a lot of shade, the smell of wastewater and frying fish combined with my own nervousness of being a brand new marketing assistant and trying to make sure everything goes off without a hitch.
And I’m literally nauseous at this point from the smell and the heat, but it was such a big deal for the town. So I put my big girl pants on and I kept a smile on my face because the town was super excited. They were moving off of septic to wastewater treatment, which was going to help their community because oyster harvesting was really big in the area. And the septic tanks were starting to affect the local shellfish harvesting. So they really needed to move to wastewater. But yeah, that’s what comes to my mind first, when I think about a wastewater facility.
Tiffany Long: Oh, wow. That sounds fun. And a little bit miserable.
Kelly Rogers: Just a little bit.
Tiffany Long: Yeah. Odor control people, we appreciate you. So then to transition to what we have today with more modern plants, where there are facilities across the country that have become cornerstones for their communities. This is a little different than the typical vision of a wastewater plant that you just described Kelly. That is maybe hidden, a little out of sight out of mind and not really accessible to the local community. There are now beautiful facilities that showcase art and sustainability and are gathering places for events, education, and even weddings. I think about the Johns Creek environmental campus in Fulton county, Georgia that made a commitment to zero impact, meaning no noticeable odor, noise, or light affecting adjacent neighbors.
Kelly Rogers: And that’s a beautiful facility. They have a covered bridge and these beautiful grounds and trails and people love that facility. It’s gorgeous.
Tiffany Long: Yeah, why not? So today we’re excited to share with you a story about a facility that is the new gold standard for how a treatment plant can give back to the community it serves.
Susan Tallarico: There’s very tasteful, educational signage everywhere, like even in the bathrooms. It talks about how the water in our toilets is recycled water.
Tiffany Long: We’re really thankful to have with us Susan Tallarico who serves as the education and engagement supervisor for the King County wastewater treatment division. Susan has been in the field of conservation, education and community development for over 25 years. She has experience working throughout the US and internationally in the development of community focus programs for nonprofit and government agencies. She was hired at King County to start the Brightwater education center, and now acts as lead for the education efforts of the division, which focuses on engaging diverse regional communities and creating stewards of water resources. She’s been working toward increased equity and helping people her entire career from her first job as a high school science teacher in an impoverished area of South Carolina to community development work with underserved communities in the Caribbean, Central America and Asia. Welcome Susan, thanks for joining us today.
Susan Tallarico: Yeah. So Brightwater center, it is located a little bit north of Seattle. It takes about 30 minutes to drive there from Seattle. And it was a project of King County’s wastewater treatment division. And this like many of our projects was really envisioned as mitigation back towards the community. And so Brightwater center… Well, I guess I should take two steps back and is Brightwater the treatment plant really. I have to talk a little bit about the treatment plant, right? Which is located on the same property. It took a long time. It took five years just to site the treatment plant. Quite a process.
And involved a lot of community being involved. A part of over 500 different community meetings involved talking about the what ifs, what of the site? What did people want? What could be a possible give back to the community? And so Brightwater, that’s the history. It came about because the community really wanted an events space. It really wanted a place of a park kind of natural area, which we do have on site about three miles of walking trails. Also have about a hundred acres of kind of park type area that is next to the center and the treatment plant, and it’s really become a community amenity.
Kelly Rogers: So was it part of the plan originally or was it because there was so much community involvement and requests that it actually got added to the scope?
Susan Tallarico: Yes and no. A little bit of both, I guess. I mean, there’s always these huge… I mean, if you think about it, this was a new treatment plant. They don’t get built very often. There’s retrofits, there’s improvements, but our other two main regional treatment plants are from 1950s, 60s. So this was a huge endeavor brand new treatment plant, state-of-the-art treatment plant with some of the highest technology and all of our larger per capital projects, there is always a community involvement. There’s always a what does the community want to see out of this project? Simple things of, what is the exterior of the new pump station look like? I mean, some simple things to that, but then of course this was such a huge project that they really wanted to have big mitigation give backs to the community and the neighbors. And so that was huge amount of involvement was the community aspect.
Kelly Rogers: Yeah. One of the things… Well, I should say Brightwater has a lot of unique aspects compared to some of the other facilities. I read about like the landscaping, the architecture, the wild life habitat. Can you talk about a few of those things that are really neat?
Susan Tallarico: Yeah. Well, I come from the lens of like we teach a lot about water up at that site. So, it’s of course the biggest thing is that we have a full running rental and event space, but we also have a full running education center. And that was really the big vision of this site is that they wanted people of all ages to be able to come here and learn about water and their water system. And so, that’s the uniqueness in it to use is that we really have programming going on all the time and we are teaching. And so that’s sort of the inside space. I mean, I could go on and on. I’m sure we’ll talk a little bit more about the inside spaces, but the exterior, you’re right. I mean, we have this amazing landscape… And I shouldn’t say landscape is really a huge amount of it. It was really a restoration project.
This was a site that was, as far as the eye could see, old junk cars. It was a plot for old… Yeah, I know. It’s crazy that junk cars and you can imagine that even though I was told that the owner was very responsible and dealing with toxic fluids and other things, that it was still quite a bit of a site from years and years of that. There was also an old landscaping business. So there was a lot of interesting things on this site. One of the storage areas that the treatment plant actually uses for big equipment and storage is a huge warehouse that used to be where they brewed soup. It was the stockpot soup factory. I know. It’s sort of crazy and sort of the funny thing is there was all these meetings and of course, as many folks know, in siting a treatment plant, everybody’s worried about the smell. Smell, smell, huge, huge.
So there was all these worries about smell. Well, it’s funny… You can fast forward treatment plant gets put down, treatment plant is operating. And so many neighbors are like, wow, there’s no smell. And we used to get the worst smell from the French onion brewing and the broccoli cheddar brewing. So go figure that a treatment plant is actually an improvement in smell to what they used to have. So I will say there’s a reason for that. There was a significant effort and capital investment in odor control, and that is a game changer for this treatment plant. People walking trails right next to a treatment plant or using a space, if there was really strong odors coming, it would be for a different experience for sure.
Kelly Rogers: So the community events center that’s there, I know it’s used for a lot of different types of events. What kind of events do people use the community center for?
Susan Tallarico: Oh gosh. So many things. So many interesting things. I mean, it really is kind of amazing the broad spectrum. So outside of our standard education programs, which our internal King County team does as well as with other educational partners, the straight up just events are all over the place. From anniversary parties to birthday parties, to sustainability workshops or conferences to… I mean, almost anything you can imagine they have there. I’m trying to remember. Like we also have regulars. So we have weekly meetings of the… There’s a club of folks who get together and they’re really into meeting. And so they have like a knitting club meeting there and we have regular dance groups who come in and do their dance training, their dance classes there. It’s kind of all over the place.
t’s amazing. And then some are small because we have spaces that can be quite small. A lot of our rooms that can be opened and closed. So you can have a really small intimate space or very large spaces. And then of course, the big one that everybody always said is we will have weddings. And I know when I came on, I came on to sort of start up the center. And when I came on, they hadn’t finished the buildings yet, but it was all planned out. I remember meeting with the project managers and just talking about the vision of this and what has been discussed and what are the opportunities. And they gave me this eight inch thick master plan of what it could be.
And I was like, well, okay. Yeah, probably not going to read that. So maybe just give me maybe a little summary. But one of the things that came out is, we would love it, we envision weddings, and there was a lot of internal people who are like, yeah right. People aren’t going to get married there, but it happened. And it happens. It continually happens actually. We probably average about six or seven weddings a year. And yeah, it’s kind of amazing.
Kelly Rogers: For couples out there that are looking for a wedding venue. How did they find you?
Susan Tallarico: We may be on some of the websites. We’ve really honestly spent zero money on advertising the site. I know it’s kind of crazy. There’s a lot of word of mouth that goes on.
Tiffany Long: That’s great. When couples come and look at the facility with it in mind for a wedding, do they realize what it is?
Susan Tallarico: Usually no. I know. It’s really interesting. I think everybody in the waste water or water sector would be like, what? They are just surprised because, you drive in and we’re not hiding it I will say. For folks who’ve never been to our site, it’s not as though we’re like hugely separated from the plant itself. You drive in and the first thing that you see in front of you looks like a big… Some sort of factory. So yes, the waste water plant is right there. But people just kind of drive past it and then go over to where we’re located, which is kind of past a fence and across the parking lot. And they just think, oh. And so, just to answer your question fully, the first ever wedding that came, I remember we were walking, did a site visit with the bride and groom walking around, looking. Oh, we love this. Talking details about catering and what this space could be useful-
Kelly Rogers: We can take photos over here.
Susan Tallarico: Yeah. Talking all the wedding stuff and they were like, we love it. We want it. And then just at the very end the bride goes, we were just wondering what’s that thing over there? What’s that big thing across the parking lot. We we’re like, and just started chuckling of course, laughing to ourselves and saying, well, that’s actually a wastewater treatment plant. You didn’t hear about Brightwater. And they’re like, oh no, what’s Brightwater. Oh, okay. Well, so you’re at Brightwater center, but then there’s bright water treatment plants. And it’s kind of a big deal for the region, but it also made us realize that at that point we were going to get lots of rentals of folks that really just wanted a lovely space to have an event. And I think since then, gosh… So we’ve been doing weddings for probably about, well, as you say, it’s been seven years. It’s really been six years if you subtract the COVID year.
Susan Tallarico: I think we’re 35 or 36 weddings. So yeah, that’s-
Kelly Rogers: That’s quite a few. You’re the wastewater plant.
Susan Tallarico: We’re the wastewater plant. Exactly. Yeah. And so many people didn’t think this happened. Yeah. It was was good. It’s been really good. And it makes a lot of people happy. And I think one of the other big selling things is it’s a LEED platinum building. So people really like that it is a sustainably built building. And then they also really like that the operations… What their wedding is basically, and all the events are paying for is the general operations for the center. And the whole point, the other big piece of the center is education programs and it’s free education programs for students. So the idea that they’re getting to support free education is a pretty cool thing. I think people really like that as well.
Kelly Rogers: So I know in your exhibit, you have an exhibit hall in your community center that kind of talks about the treatment plant and what it does and how have the wedding guests reacted to seeing that?
Susan Tallarico: I would say 99% are positive. Like most people just kind of find it interesting. It’s funny because, I won’t say strategically because it wasn’t a plan, but you do actually have to go through the exhibit hall and learn about some water to get to the bathrooms. I mean, I guess you could just hightail it right to a bathroom without looking around at all. But generally you’re going to see some interesting things and usually people kind of, oh, look around and wonder what all this… Yeah. So they have to go on their way. But there is also, I will say not… There’s very tasteful, educational signage everywhere. Like even in the bathrooms, it talks about how the water in our toilets is recycled water. So, you’re getting a little bit of education everywhere. But some folks really embrace it.
We’ve had weddings or big conferences or workshops where they’ve used that as… They’ve set up either exhibits in there or they’ve used it for things like a cocktail hour before a big event. So it’s really been well used. We do not sit there and keep a ticker of how many people go into our exhibit hall all the time. It’s open for business hours and people from the community come in and use it. So it’s just another way that people engage with the space. And I think that’s one of the big things that… I’ve talked to a lot of people within the water sector who are really going this direction of either having an event space or an educational center or both like we have. And I think one of the big things that I always say that I think is so amazing is that this center and space, it really has changed people’s perspective on how they engage with their local utilities, their local government.
It becomes a space that now they can go, they can celebrate, they can learn. And it really does change that relationship and that dialogue instead of, oh, these are the people who just send me a water bill or something. It’s a very different positive experience. In all of our education programming we’re usually doing for our education programs somewhere around 15 to 20,000 people in all of our education programs per year. And that’s just participants. That’s not just a random drop-in. I mean, these are registered people. And then for our event space, we may have up to 30,000 people come through in events per year.
So that’s pretty amazing too. So yeah, we’re getting a lot of folks who come through and as I kind of mentioned before, that’s a lot of folks per year to come through. 40 plus thousand people per year who are coming through that have a great experience. I can say that because we do a lot of surveying and feedback stuff that have a great experience. And then they do, they just look at the space that is King County wastewater treatment division. They look at that very differently. So it is amazing.
Kelly Rogers: I bet you have programs with like the elementary schools, high schools, a lot of different school programs?
Susan Tallarico: Absolutely. Yeah. So I mean the largest amount of students that come through are generally in the upper elementary age. So for fifth grade through high school, we do all those ages. But fourth, fifth is probably our biggest amount of students who come in. Yeah. They come from all over. I mean, because we have three major wastewater treatment facilities, we have students who go to each of them and King County is very large county. So we’re not going to have folks who come all the way from the south end of the county and come all the way up to Brightwater, which is at the very north. It’s actually in Snohomish county officially, but serve Southern Snohomish and Northern King County. And yeah, so we get a ton of students there. University college students come, we have family programs, we have professional development for teachers.
We have adult workshops on sustainability. It runs the gamut of all the different… Just general community tours for all age folks. And we really… I will say one of the big things we do is, a big part of our programming also is to prioritize working with underrepresented and underserved populations. So we have equity and social justice goals that we take very seriously and are always trying to do better every year. And our programs reach out and we do specific outreach and engagement with underserved communities. People always ask, well, how do you reach them? I have internal folks when they see our numbers of percentages and they’re like, how are you reaching so many diverse? I said, well, we give them priority registration. And they’re like, oh. I’m like, yeah. It’s not that hard.
I mean, you reach out to them. You tell them what you got. You make it really easy. You make it accessible, you give them transportation. We pay for transportation. It’s part of our general operating budget that was approved where we don’t have to go out and scratch and beg and borrow for grants every year to try and get something like that. Is part of our operating budget is to pay for free transportation for schools that need it. It’s not for every school, but the school is based on low socioeconomic status of the school. And so we make it as accessible as possible. There’s no cost and we open it up to the highest or the low socioeconomic high diversity schools first. They get to register and then we open it up further.
Kelly Rogers: That’s so smart. That’s amazing.
Susan Tallarico: And so it’s a great way to get… And we do a lot of targeted outreach. We are targeting the schools. All this information’s out there. You can find the schools that have the highest diversity and lowest socioeconomic status. You just do a lot of targeted outreach to them and try to get them to sign up to. And that means for all of our different educational programs. We do a lot of really in-depth programs with youth, teens. And we make a lot of direct partnerships with other youth programs in the area that are reaching, whether it’s immigrant population students, whether it’s students who’ve been in judicial system, whether it’s students who are in rehabilitation center. We do a lot of direct outreach and work with different groups and partnerships. And we also run really in-depth programs with different populations of students like paid teen intern programs that are year round. I think when people hear about that, you talk about, oh, well this topic of careers and the water sector careers and creating jobs and especially getting young diverse population folks in water sector. And how do you get them excited about this?
Well, one thing you don’t do that I learned real easy… Well, I didn’t learn. I knew. You don’t call them jobs, sewage jobs, or wastewater jobs. That ain’t sexy. So we quickly changed the name. I was like, how about let’s call them careers in clean water? Oh, that sounds way better. It’s about keeping our water clean. And there’s so many jobs to try to keep our water clean or in cleaning our water. So we do, yeah. We do careers in clean water events each year. And we do a water ambassadors teen intern program every year. And it is amazing how many young people have no idea about these kinds of jobs. And they have no… And again, we’re real honest about how much does it pay? What are the perks? This is what kids want to know. How much schooling? If there’s schooling, is it a trades program?
Is it a different kind of program? And we get them learning from our internal staff. It is been such a successful program because not only does it engage these amazing youth from around our region and get them to… Because as a year round intern program, we go deep with them and we build a relationship with them. And not only it’s been so powerful for them, but also we all of a sudden now engaging all of these internal staff who get to talk about their jobs and it’s like so many people have said, they’ve been really inspired by being able to talk about their jobs and to teach the next generation about their jobs. So yeah, I will say, you had asked me before, like what is some of all lessons learned and things that other water sector people might need to know? Start a teen intern program too. That is also paid intern program. If you have – I know a lot of folks don’t have the funds for that kind of thing. But if you do, it is-
Kelly Rogers: If you think about in the planning phase and early on, then you can plan for that.
Susan Tallarico: You can plan for that kind of stuff. And I will say is if you do… I shouldn’t say that I don’t. I’ve been involved in writing grants and getting outside funding as well for different projects. That kind of program, trust me is actually a very… I won’t say it’s an easy one, but it is definitely a pretty popular kind of program to get outside funding for. So yeah, do that.
Tiffany Long: This was great. It was really interesting. You guys are pioneers and I love hearing that other utilities are reaching out to hear what you’re doing and hopefully it catches on. And I think that sounds like you’re running some great programs that would be beneficial to many communities.
Kelly Rogers: We are so glad you joined us today. As we talked about community engagement, education, and even weddings at the Brightwater center in Washington. Thank you for your time today, Susan. I know when we originally reached out, we wanted to talk specifically about weddings, but you shared so much more about how a facility like Brightwater can really make a huge impact on the community, not just as an event center but as a source of education and job programs and just so much more. I know I learned a lot and I’m thrilled we can share some of your strategies with listeners as other facilities move toward more connection with their communities. So again, thank you. Such a great discussion today.
Susan Tallarico: Yeah. Thank you.
Tiffany Long: I second that. Thank you so much, Susan. Well, we’re sure that there are many of our listeners out there that have their own engineering legends stories. We’d love to hear from you. Please send us your feedback, stories and ideas for future episodes. You can reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org. This podcast was brought to you by Brown and Caldwell. It’s our purpose and our passion to safeguard water, maintain infrastructure, and restore habitats to keep our communities thriving. Until next time.