Collegiate Students First Eyes on New SWIFT Water Treatment Facility

Dr. Frank Thomson’s AP Environmental class didn’t know what they were in for when they visited the Sustainable Water Initiative for Tomorrow  (SWIFT) Wastewater Treatment Facility for Research & Education Center, an initiative supported by Hampton Roads Sanitation District.

“It was way cooler than just looking at poop, which is what I expected!” said junior Clare Harbin.

The SWIFT center is turning the “used into useful”, replenishing and protecting groundwater, fighting sea level rise and supporting Virginia’s economy. Collegiate students were the center’s first public audience during a field trip on water and purification, and they learned an incredible amount about what goes into sanitizing the Hampton Roads water supply.

“We got to try the purified water, and it just tasted like regular tap water,” continued Harbin.

Students were invited to the many levels of the facility, watching pipes of different sizes carry water through various purifiers. Much of the water is treated to match the existing groundwater chemistry and added to the Potomac Aquifer, the primary source of groundwater in eastern Virginia.

“Besides helping the aquifer, they also want to help recycle the waste that comes into the facility,” said Harbin. The center recycles the waste they separate from viable drinking water and uses it for compost, selling pellets to local companies that need fertilizers.

The center showed students how critical it is to test the water at every point in the purification process and also let the class try water being pumped into the aquifer through two different sources.

“[It] was one of those days every teacher strives for in which everything you have covered in class comes together for the students in an applied setting,” said Thomson. “The center is a brand-new, state-of-the-art $25 million facility, and it’s part of a $1.1 billion initiative that could change our lives dramatically. The revolutionary SWIFT tertiary wastewater treatment process could prevent future drinking water shortages, virtually eliminate nutrient pollution to the Chesapeake Bay and recharge our aquifers so subsidence doesn’t contribute to sea level rise in our region.”

“It also provided an amazingly instructive tie-in to our King Tide project in which we were able to see a potential real-world solution to a problem we are studying in class.”

The SWIFT center is a multi-year initiative and will take already highly-treated wastewater (that would otherwise be discharged into the Elizabeth, James or York rivers) through additional advanced water treatment to produce drinking-quality water. To read more about the initiative, visit