Stickney from above (pic by brewbrooks/Flickr)

Ever wanted to see where the water goes once you’ve flushed it? Apparently so did those of us who recently joined a Friends of the Chicago River 20/20 outing to Stickney, the largest of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s (MWRD) Chicago-area plants.

To bust a few mini-myths, here’s the scoop on some FAQs:

  1. Does it smell terrible?  Nope, much to my surprise, this overly-sensitive sniffer detected nary an untoward smell at all. Now, granted we were on a climate-controlled bus for most of the tour, but even when we got out in the area where the gross stuff is separated out from the water, I couldn’t really smell anything.
  2. Is it safe to go? Should I wear a wetsuit and gas mask in case I fall in? Everywhere they took us seemed clean, aside from the fact that our guide put his feet on his seat…but that’s another story. Seriously, though, we dressed down for the occasion, but something tells me we could have worn pretty much anything and been fine. And on a related safety note, we had to pass background checks and a police SUV escorted our bus throughout the tour, so it seems like security is something they don’t take lightly.
  3. How big a deal can a water waste treatment plant really be? Pretty colossal, really, especially in Stickney’s case. It’s considered the world’s largest wastewater treatment plant. Others in its category of insane productivity are Singapore and another fellow Midwesterner—Detroit. That’s according to Ben, the civil engineer who led our tour.
  4. Does the water freeze in winter? Contrary to everything else we know about winter, wastewater doesn’t freeze during treatment here. That’s because the sewer lines run below frost lines, which, coupled with the kinetic energy of constant churning, keeps it above freezing.
  5. What kind of weird stuff ends up there? You name it, it’s been there. People flush all kinds of strange things aside from the obvious (yes, that would be fecal matter—there, we said it!). Think everything from candy wrappers to hypodermic needles to actual wads of cash. Ben says straws are surprisingly common.

    Our tour guide, Ben, has been a civil engineer at Stickney for four years.

And for those of you who are into numbers, voila:

  • 5: Bird species spotted during our 75-minute tour, including ducks, seagulls, red-winged blackbirds, and killdeer
  • 8.3: Acres of Stickney property dedicated to native prairie habitat, which gives MWRD a good opportunity to use some of the biowaste from the treatment process
  • 10: Years it may take to begin disinfecting at Stickney, according to Ben. (Meanwhile, disinfection is set to start in time for the 2016 recreational season at Calumet and North Side, making Stickney the last of the non-disinfecting plants in the area.)
  • 12-18: Hours it takes for water to move through Stickney’s treatment process
  • 96: Number of tanks in which the physical grit is removed from the water
  • 2,100: Staff working under the direction of nine elected officials in the entire MWRD
  • 2 million: The average monthly electric bill for Stickney
  • 2.38 million: Chicagoland population served by Stickney
  • 1.5 billion: Gallons of water Stickney can handle during rainy peaks
  • 21 billion: Gallons of water TARP, aka Deep Tunnel, is set to hold once it’s complete in 2029

Jealous? You can do it too! The MWRD hosts daily tours at all seven of its facilities. And though it might not be the first thing on your bucket list, now that I’ve actually done it, I can personally attest to the worthiness of this strange and thought-provoking field trip.

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