Where Does the Water Go? A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Penn State Water Management

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This week WPSU is taking a look at water issues in central Pennsylvania. Today, WPSU’s Emily Reddy explores the massive task of supplying and cleaning the water used by students, faculty, staff and visitors at Penn State University.

Larry Fennessey is in charge of stormwater at Penn State’s Office of Physical Plant. He can tell you where just about any rain that lands on Penn State’s University Park campus will end up. The rain that falls on the southern half of campus ends up in the Spring Creek watershed. But the northern half goes to the Big Hollow, which Fennessey says is unique because it has no visible water.

FENNESSEY: “It’s an underdrained valley. It probably hasn’t seen surface water flow for tens of thousands of years.”

Most features Fennessey points out on a driving tour of the Big Hollow can’t be seen. They have to be imagined. There’s no water at the “headwaters” or at the “outlet” of the Big Hollow. He says to understand how the Big Hollow works – and why it’s dry – you have to understand the geology of the area.

FENNESSEY: “Essentially an easy way to think of it is that you have a huge series of pipes – natural caves, conduits, and things like that. But then you also have a very permeable topsoil. It’s like a huge sandbox.”

Fennessey skirts the edge of State College’s Toftrees neighborhood and circles the airport. In a wooded area, he pulls the car over and points to the yard next to an ordinary house.

FENNESSEY: “That right there is literally the stream for the Big Hollow. It’s literally that dip you see, which is somebody’s lawn.”

The Big Hollow and other areas on campus where the water sinks right in are called “critical recharge areas.” The university aggressively protects these areas because of how valuable they are at soaking up water during a rainstorm. They mean less flooding and less need for large, unsightly retention ponds.

THE LIVING FILTER

Another fascinating feature of the Big Hollow is called the “living filter.” It’s a 600 acre area out by the airport that looks like your typical farm and forestland – except that it’s crisscrossed with pipes and studded with giant sprinklers.

Fennessey says he’s not the one to explain the “living filter.” It was his coworker John Gaudlip’s first project when he got to Penn State 27 years ago.

GAUDLIP: “Okay, you’re here at the university. Here’s the living filter. Go!”

While Fennessey watches over stormwater, Gaudlip handles wastewater. That’s what’s being sprayed here. Treated wastewater is piped here two and a half miles from the campus wastewater treatment plant. And the living filter can take in a lot of water.

GAUDLIP: “We’re allowed to spray 2 inches per acre per week…that’s over 8 feet of water – 5 feet of waste water and about 3 feet of normal precipitation. And that water then percolates into the ground. The soil is over a hundred feet thick and its been estimated it takes about a year for the water to get from the surface here down to the groundwater.”

The soil, along with and the crops and trees on the land, naturally filters the remaining nutrients out of about 2 million gallons a day of treated wastewater.

GAUDLIP: “The whole idea of this concept came up in the early 60s where the researchers said hey, and they were in a drought period in the early 60s and they said, ‘Hey, we have all this wastewater why couldn’t we try to recycle that wastewater?’ And that’s pretty forward thinking back in the 60s that’s basically the Middle Ages relative to water consciousness.”

Spraying started in earnest in 1983. Even now it’s a novel approach. Most treatment plants simply discharge their water into streams, rivers, and creeks.

But Gaudlip considers that a waste. Instead he’s always looking for new ways to reuse all the water Penn State creates.

GAUDLIP: “The issue we have is we’re the only game in town. If we don’t have an area to get rid of the water we’ve got troubles.”
That’s why Penn State is planning to build a new wastewater treatment plant. Gaudlip says they hope to keep using the “living filter,” but that a new plant would make water clean enough to reuse in steam plants, chiller plants and utility plants on campus.

RUNOFF CREEPS CLOSER

Larry Fennessey says a potable water treatment plant is also in the works.

GAUDLIP: “If there’s any of your listeners out there with an extra 20-30 million dollars they’d like to pony up and have a water treatment plant named after them I’m sure the University would be very receptive to that.”

Right now, water on the Penn State campus is pulled directly from wells on campus land. But Fennessey says development in State College means runoff washed from streets and parking lots is making it closer and closer to wells. To illustrate the runoff issue, Fennessey stops at a major drainage area in the Big Hollow.

GAUDLIP: “So this’ll give you kind of a good idea. That is a well. It is drawing water out of the groundwater to supply the university. We’ll walk right around here, around this corner and we’ll literally see where the water from the Colonnade is kind of coming in.”

The Colonnade shopping plaza on North Atherton Street and the neighborhoods around it have expanded rapidly in recent years. Every time something new is built there’s a little less land to soak up rain water. That means more runoff is pushed into drainage areas like this one near the water well. If contaminated water does get into the well, sensors will shut it down. But that would mean the well won’t be providing its share of the one billion gallons of water Penn State uses every year.

GAUDLIP: “Water. Water’s that thing that no one cares about it unless they have none or too much.”

To fend off water worries, Penn State is being forced to give up the natural systems that have served it well for decades. The pressures of modern life mean the university needs more then just the Big Hollow and the “living filter” to ensure safe water for generations to come.
-Emily Reddy

*This story is part of “Think Outside the Pipes,” a local reporting initiative funded by the Park Foundation and sponsored by Penn State Public Media and its "Water Blues Green Solutions" documentary – which airs February 13th at 8 on WPSU-TV.

(Correction - This story originally misstated the amount of water Penn State uses. The university uses one billion gallons of water a year, not one billion gallons of water a day.)

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