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Bridging the Distance - East Bay Municipal Utility District’s Virtual Tour
Since 2016, the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) has worked to demystify the world of wastewater for its community through tours of its Main Wastewater Treatment Plant located in Oakland, CA. When the pandemic struck in March 2020, EBMUD quickly mobilized to replace its in-person tours with virtual tours, allowing community members to visit the plant from the safety and comfort of home. The transformed Virtual Tour Program has reached a broader, larger, and multilingual audience, all while retaining the same key messages about how wastewater treatment protects public health and the San Francisco Bay.
Conducted through an online meeting platform, the virtual tour is a one-hour interactive PowerPoint presentation that covers a range of topics, including the water cycle, the natural vs. built environment, types of wastewater, contaminants, pollution prevention, history of wastewater treatment, wastewater treatment fundamentals, and beneficial reuse. Strategically designed for a non-technical audience, the virtual tour targets students on the high school level but can be customized for elementary and middle schoolers and professional groups. EBMUD offers virtual tours in three languages— English, Spanish and Cantonese – to cater to the diverse communities it serves.
The PowerPoint presentation dazzles like a magazine spread with colorful and engaging graphics that were designed in-house originally for kiosks along the in-person tour route. In addition to pictures, key concepts are illustrated through visual demonstrations. On some tours, the real-time wastewater treatment processes are live streamed by a tour guide walking around the Main Wastewater Treatment Plant.
Virtual tours have proven to have many benefits – group sizes are no longer limited, minimum age requirements are lifted, geographic/transportation constraints are removed, and the carbon footprint of driving is eliminated. These changes have allowed the tour program to serve nearly three times as many participants in 2020 than in past years and reach participants from as far away as Mongolia. Most importantly, these changes have allowed EBMUD to engage more schools across its 88-square mile service area, which otherwise would not attend tours due to transportation costs and lack of chaperones.
For its work on the Virtual Tour Program, EBMUD was recognized with a NACWA 2021 National Environmental Achievement Award in the Public Information & Education - Educational Program category. Congratulations to EBMUD and everyone involved!