A Big Splash for Sustainability

Everyday we utilize tools and resources that are essential to our daily lives without offering them much thought. We drink water from our kitchen tap, run a bath, and wash our clothes without considering the origins or processes of the water that fuel our day-to-day necessities. However, while working at the University of Michigan (U-M) Farm Stand one day, our casual conversations wandered to the underground systems of Ann Arbor that are often disregarded despite their immense importance. Our interest piqued, we discussed the possibility of visiting the sites where Ann Arbor’s water resources are managed and treated. 

On July 22nd, we were able to schedule a tour for the Ann Arbor Water Treatment Plant. This would be an opportunity to better understand, connect with, and explore where our water comes from and the work that happens behind the scenes in order for us to drink and utilize it safely. Here we will do our best to explain some of the processes that we learned about and provide you with some resources for learning more about our community drinking water. Fun Fact: our local water treatment facility processes 14,000,000 gallons of water every day!

Students start the tour over a large basin of water
Our tour at the A2 water treatment facility standing over a huge basin of water.

Why this matters

Image of the newer water treatment system's pool.
The newer water treatment system’s pool that the facility mainly uses to soften the water.

“Why are you even doing this?” was the question many of us were asked regarding the upcoming tour. While it might be easy to think a water treatment plant is trivial and unimportant, it is a critical piece of infrastructure that improves our daily lives. The management and upkeep of the water treatment facility is more intense than we could have ever guessed. There are two treatment systems within the facility: the original system, built in 1938, and a newer one, established in 1966. Learn more about the history of the water treatment plant here. The city mainly relies on the newer system because it is more adept and efficient in providing the city’s water. The older one is used only if the newer one is undergoing maintenance, because it can only be used for a short period of time. However, there is an upcoming renovation planned for the older system, with the hope that this will streamline the maintenance and upkeep processes of both systems. It is important to consider the effects on Ann Arbor’s water access during the time of the renovation and how it will change how we currently access water. As the plans roll out, our source from the water treatment facility states that opportunities for community involvement and decision making will arise in order to best serve the community. 

As students, we were curious about how the city was handling the Gelman Dioxane plume situation, a decades-long environmental crisis caused by Gelman Sciences Inc., a company who used the carcinogenic chemical 1,4-dioxane in their manufacturing process, but did not responsibly dispose of it. As a result, 1,4-dioxane now contaminates a large source of groundwater within Ann Arbor, particularly nearby student residences. Although the groundwater is no longer used and is closely monitored, the issue reflects how water, and who controls it and has access to it, and power go hand in hand. 

Water Treatment Process

Phase 1: Softening

Once water is pumped from the Huron River or a nearby groundwater source (about 80% of Ann Arbor’s water comes from the Huron, the rest is from groundwater), the first step is to soften it. As explained by our tour guide, Becky, minerals and chemical compounds are added to the water to remove things like iron from the water. The water is first mixed really fast in huge cement mixers under the sanitation building, and then is slowly mixed when it is funneled through various pools and “lazy rivers” (as I like to call them) outside the building. Once the water reaches a certain pH and heavy materials have sunk to the bottom of the softening pools, the softened water arrives at the filtered station. Byproducts that are removed from the water are sent to local farms to enrich the soil with minerals and other organic matter. 

Phase 2: Disinfecting

Can you guess what is used to disinfect our city’s water supply? It’s ozone, a gas made from combining three oxygen atoms. The Ann Arbor water treatment facility actually makes their own ozone gas using electricity. When ozone is introduced to water, it kills potentially harmful bacteria and viruses. 

Phase 3: Filtering

After the water is disinfected, it is filtered through sand and large carbon filters. The carbon filters are able to remove any leftover debris. While large debris are not able to fit through the small pores of the filter, the carbon material also removes small particles through absorption. Becky explained that these massive filters work just like a carbon brita filter that we might have at home. Every so often the filters are backwashed and cleaned. They are also replaced regularly. You can learn more about home water filtration options and water quality guidelines on the CDC website.

Phase 4: Ready for Drinking

Before the filtered water is sent off to your homes, it receives a boost of chloramines to maintain its purity and fluoride, which has been recommended by the government for its dental benefits. The water is then sent out to the Ann Arbor township as well as Scio township. There are about 125,000 people over 400 miles of pipes relying on the drinking water that comes from this facility alone!


Below are some insights from a few students who attended the tour. Here we discuss some of our key learnings and why it matters for our community at U-M.

Morgan’s Insights:

Something I pulled away from this tour was the amount of infrastructure and science needed to provide water. Of course, I am aware that “Water is Life.” It’s political, and not always accessible, nor managed responsibly. However, all of the steps, technology, and constant and consistent oversight at the Ann Arbor Water Treatment plant made me realize all the work that goes behind even one drop of water that comes out of the tap. Honestly… I did wonder what would happen if there were to be a zombie apocalypse or something! As a student involved in food systems, I always think about how agriculture would evolve and survive in such a world, but I realized I don’t give enough thought to the infrastructure not only needed for drinking water, but also irrigation too! Wow, oh water. Thus, I encourage you, even if you’re not in Ann Arbor, to tour your local water treatment facility. Learn about what happens to your water before it arrives at your tap because whoever controls water, has power, and sometimes such power can go unchecked.

Madison’s Insights: 

As some may know, water purification and treatment is more important than ever right now, as the most recent chemical spill threatens Ann Arbor’s drinking water supply. Eighty percent of Ann Arbor’s drinking water comes from the Huron river, however company responsible for the most recent pollutant in the water, as well as the release of toxic PFAS, does not show the river, or those who depend on it—including all of the inhabitants of Ann Arbor—the respect they deserve. The chemists working at Ann Arbor’s water purification plant have already taken on the burden of removing the toxic amounts of PFAS from the water, a task demanded of them without concern for the extra effort and without consequences for the company responsible. To take action and prevent further damage to the Huron river, groups like the Sierra Club have hosted a rally against further chemical spills, while other environmentalists rally for an extension of Michigan’s 1995 “Polluter Pay” law. If you are interested in helping to protect the Huron River, consider volunteering with the Huron River Watershed Council.

Get Involved!

As the water treatment facility forms their plans, remember to stay up to date on how that will affect the community’s access and usage of water. You can do so by checking a2gov.org to get the freshest updates regarding Ann Arbor’s water supply. Also, below is a fun video to give you a peek of what we saw on the tour!

If you’re interested in social and environmental justice topics (like the intersection of water and food justice!), stop by the U-M Farm Stand on Thursdays from 12-3pm outside of the UMMA! The U-M Sustainable Food Program and the U-M Campus Farm will be more than happy to indulge in such conversations, as well as inform you about ways to get involved on and off campus. 

Stay in the loop with sustainability happenings on campus by following these awesome student orgs:

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