Waste Reduction Living Machine System will use constructed wetlands to treat wastewater at Otay Mesa border crossing

Published on December 10th, 2010 | by Tina Casey


New Wastewater Treatment Plant Gives Visitors a Warm Welcome to the U.S.A.

December 10th, 2010 by  

Living Machine System will use constructed wetlands to treat wastewater at Otay Mesa border crossingOne of the busiest border crossings in the U.S. will soon welcome visitors with a stroll through a new wastewater treatment plant. That sounds a bit, well, unfriendly, but there’s a twist. The “treatment plant” will be disguised as a beautifully landscaped,  man-made wetland environment that purifies wastewater through natural processes. Visitors using the Otay Mesa Land Port of Entry in California will amble to the U.S. through the wetlands on a curved, meandering pedestrian walkway. It’s still sewage, but it sure sounds a lot more pleasant than a TSA pat-down!

The Living Machine Constructed Wetlands

The new treatment plant/wetlands is called Living Machine, produced by the company Worrell Water Technologies. The concept is based on the decomposition that takes place in tidal wetlands, in which two kinds of bacteria digest organic matter. These are anaerobic bacteria, which thrive in the absence of oxygen, and aerobic bacteria. The man-made Living Machine wetland is designed to maximize the efficiency of these processes within the smallest possible space. Though the resulting water is not suitable for drinking or cooking, it has a wide variety of other uses including recharging aquifers, irrigation, toilet flushing, cleaning, filling fountains and ornamental ponds, and various industrial uses. The Living Machine at Otay Mesa will be capable of treating up to 1,500 gallons of high-strength “black water” (from toilets) and “gray water” (from sinks).

A New Direction for Wastewater Treatment

Constructed wetlands like the Living Machine obviously cannot be applied to every situation. For example, they would be difficult to site within cities and other congested areas, although mini-wetlands using cattails are one possibility. Where sufficient land is available, constructed wetlands are becoming a mainstream means of treating and recycling wastewater, as evidenced by the fact that at least one very fancy private golf club has begun to irrigate its grounds with reclaimed wastewater. Constructed wetlands also play a key role in the U.S. EPA’s green remediation strategies, which are designed to reduce the carbon footprint involved in cleaning up Superfund and brownfield sites.

Image: Living Machine constructed wetlands courtesy U.S. GSA.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • Mayur

    Hey Hi Tina,

    I was wondering what could be the costs involved in setting up Living Machine for (say) treatment of 170000 gallons per day.

  • Monty

    Hello Tina.
    I looked at Ocean Arks'(thank-you Frank)website and tried to compare to Worrell Water’s Living Machines. It seems like Ocean Ark has a cool, but limited in application design (i.e: light and space needs) compared to Worrell’s Living Machines which seems to have more practical, reliable commercial applications (less space, etc) Is that why GSA and other agencies lean toward Living Machines? Is that your understanding?

    • Tina Casey

      Thank you, Monty. Anyone out there from GSA have any insights? Just to hazard a guess, as long as the process is soundly designed it seems that selecting one over the other would be based on which one is most appropriate for the site (space, climate, etc.) and is compatible with the overall facility, and then of course there may be other considerations in the bidding process.

  • Bob Wallace

    Arcata, CA has had a marsh water treatment system in operation for decades.

    The average daily water use per person in the US is roughly 159 gallons per day. Thus, the 16,000 residents in Arcata treat an average of 2.5 million gallons of water a day in their marsh system.

    In addition to treating waste water the marsh provides highly used walking/jogging trails and a bird sanctuary.

    The water, after passing through the marsh system, is perfectly safe for release into Humboldt Bay and on to the Pacific. A large portion of the nation’s oysters are grown in the Bay and oyster farmers take water quality very seriously.

    • Tina Casey

      Hi Bob thanks for the info about Arcata’s marsh treatment system.

  • Frank Hanlan

    I am surprised that you didn’t mention Dr. John Todd, of Ocean Arks International, who originated this technique at the New Alchemy Institute.

  • paris roosevelt

    Hello Tina
    The City of San Francisco’s public utility commission has specified a 5000 gallon per day Worrell Living Machine system for a new building in the city’s civic center. I think San Francisco is the second major city in density in the US after New York City.

    • Tina Casey

      Hi Paris, thanks for the info about San Francisco’s new Living Machine. To put things in perspective, New York City treats about 1 billion gallons of water daily, but more low-volume alternatives like the Living Machine can still be a part of an urban wastewater system.

  • Wayne Williamson

    Tina…just wondering what the time period for the 1,500 gallons is…minute..hour..day…Thanks.

    • Tina Casey

      Hi Wayne that’s 1500 gallons per day.

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