Cleaning Disney’s Water with Plants: The Water Hyacinth Project

Cleaning Disney’s Water with Plants: The Water Hyacinth Project


Whether you’re in the camp of people who
believe it would have changed from the city concept regardless, or you’re in the camp
who feels that what we got was a compromise on his dream, the undeniable reality is that
Walt Disney’s death in 1966 changed the fate of Epcot. While we would not get that city of the future,
the Walt Disney Company did commit to building Epcot for guests, and beyond that they did
make an honest effort in the 70’s and 80’s to use their Florida land to experiment with
new ideas and technologies that might one day change our society. One of those ideas in particular was to take
perhaps one of the region’s most unwanted plants and use it as a force for good for
the environment. This is a water hyacinth. Found in the warmer regions of the south,
it is an invasive aquatic plant species that was introduced to the United States in the
late 1800’s. These plants grow like crazy and they grow
daughter plants. That means that one single water hyacinth
can end up covering up to an acre after just one growing season. As impressive as that growth rate is, it makes
them a danger to their environment. By growing and spreading quickly, they can
end up completely covering bodies of water they occupy, blocking the sun and negatively
impacting the ecosystem for fish and other aquatic life under that water. At the same time they create ideal breeding
conditions for insects like mosquitoes. On top of that they also risk altering or
impeding the flow of water, which in turn can impact the environment around them. They’re also a pain for us humans. The heavy thick roots are easily prone to
getting caught up in boat propellers and can hamper fishing. All in all, the water hyacinth offers little
benefit but plenty of problems. With their proliferation all sorts of ideas
for getting rid of them popped up. Chemicals were an obvious idea, but they caused
issues. They’d usually succeed at killing the plant,
but then the dead plant would sink to the bottom of the water, introducing those chemicals
to the water. Insect species were introduced in hopes that
they would eat the plants, but that didn’t work. Some of the more wild ideas included the possibility
of introducing hippos to certain environments in hopes that they’d eat the plants. In 1975 at the National Space Technology Laboratories,
NASA took a different approach to the water hyacinth. They discovered the benefits of the pesky
plant. Through their application project, NASA discovered
that the water hyacinth thrived on sewage, absorbing wastewater pollutants. They also found that the naturally occurring
bacteria on the plant itself would help in breaking down more complex pollutants which
made it easier for the plant to absorb. That knowledge, combined with the opportunities
of scale that the plant offered by growing so fast, meant that the water hyacinth was
a potential means of naturally treating wastewater. The findings from this project were significant
enough to kick off a number of continued experiments in the south and southeast. Within just a few years towns and cities in
Texas, Mississippi, Georgia and Florida were setting up their own water hyacinth treatment
projects to see if the plant could offer a cheaper and more environmentally friendly
way to clean their water. It was novel and innovative and just the perfect
project for Disney. Proposed and developed by WED Enterprises in 1976, the Water Hyacinth Project was a simple concept. They wanted to build three long narrow quarter-acre
trenches that would be filled with water hyacinths before filtering wastewater through them. The project was approved in 1978 and sponsored
by the EPA, the Department of Energy, NASA, the state of Florida, and a few private entities
including Disney themselves, the Aquamarine Corporation, the United Gas PipeLine Company,
and the Gas Research Institute. Now those last two might sound a bit out of
place, but their involvement was key to the second half of Disney’s Water Hyacinth Project. NASA had already proven that the plants were
effective at cleaning water, but a big question that had still remained was what to do with
the plants afterwards. Eventually they’d become too saturated and
their filtering effectiveness would drop. It was easy enough to remove those plants
and let new ones quickly grow in their place, but then what do you do with the tons of useless
remains? Ideas across the various experiments in the
US ranged from grinding it up into feed for cattle to using them for fertilizer. However one idea that Disney explored was
turning them into gas that could later be used as a source of power. The process was known as anaerobic digestion. In short, the plants and other natural sludge
would be put into tanks where bacteria would go to town on it, converting it over time
into gas. That gas would be collected, and from it the
methane would be extracted where it could later be burned as a fuel source. I actually have another video all about how
Disney, with Harvest Energy, uses this process today to convert food waste into power. Construction for the Water Hyacinth Project
began in February of 1979 and, being the simple design it was, was finished by the beginning
of that May. Disney initially seeded the three quarter-acre
channels with just 10% of the water hyacinths needed to cover the entire area. Just eight weeks later they were completely
covered. The facility began operation that year and…
well, it worked. It was stated that the facility could treat
up to 50,000 gallons of water every day, though it actually averaged closer to 30,000. The harvesting of the hyacinths was staggered
and took place between one to six times a month. They were converted to gas and sent off to
the Gas Research Institute for study, and the wastewater sent through the facility was
effectively cleaned up enough that the process worked as a secondary method of treatment. According to Disney, the system used 50% less
energy than a conventional facility would need to achieve the same results. Disney’s Water Hyacinth Project ran successfully
for over a decade before coming to an end towards the late 1980’s. Data from the project was used across the
country at other wastewater treatment facilities. As for Disney themselves, while the concept
worked, it wasn’t really the best option for them. The amount of space that was needed to treat
the water was large, and as the Walt Disney World Resort grew dramatically in the late
80’s, Disney found themselves needing to treat more water than ever before. For some context, the Water Hyacinth Project
treated an average of 30,000 gallons of wastewater a day at a time in which they needed to treat
over five million gallons a day. So while the technology and methods behind
it worked, they were ultimately better off for rural areas with a lower population density
and less water to treat. Today, Disney’s wastewater treatment system
is far more complex than it was in the 1970’s, and it is capable of dealing with up to 20
million gallons per day. Disney’s Water Hyacinth Project was not
very well known. It wasn’t front and center for guests to
see and it certainly wasn’t exciting enough to make the news. Yet it was a new and interesting take on an
old problem, and with the partnership of not only government agencies, but also private
enterprise, it acted as a decade long example of how other communities around the world
could improve. In a way, it was a perfect example of what
Walt had envisioned for EPCOT all those years ago.

39 Comments

  • trickycrayon

    October 2, 2019

    SCIENCE NERD VIDEO CREW!!!

    Reply
  • Kriss P

    October 2, 2019

    Hey Rob, I'm curious, did you find anything on the recycling of the plants into gas?

    Reply
  • Jonnyboy 7

    October 2, 2019

    Great video as always Rob, very interesting

    Reply
  • Avery the Cuban-American

    October 2, 2019

    Fascinating how they turned an invasive Amazon plant into something that can clean water. Thank you for talking about lesser known projects like this one

    Reply
  • Eric Ahlstrom

    October 2, 2019

    I wonder how many acres of hyacinth it would take to support treating 20M gallons a day 🤔 Another fantastic video Rob, I really like learning about all these lesser known details of Disney park history. Such a cool and unique channel.

    Reply
  • Timothy Baker

    October 2, 2019

    Look closely at the over view of the current Disney WWTP and you will see a plane in the parking lot.

    Reply
  • aonmixed

    October 2, 2019

    Good shit!

    Reply
  • Daryl-Rhys Taylor

    October 2, 2019

    Can I be in both camps?

    Reply
  • krzyktty101

    October 2, 2019

    Great video. I love how unique the videos are about Disney history.

    Reply
  • NeitherDreamingNorPretending

    October 2, 2019

    As usual, Rob makes me thirsty.

    Reply
  • Caleb Nielson

    October 2, 2019

    I like it how you can take something that would generally be boring and make it interesting.😁

    Reply
  • Gordon Williamson

    October 2, 2019

    This was great! You always find the most interesting subjects for your videos. Keep up the good work.

    Reply
  • Loralei Standish

    October 2, 2019

    Super fascinating as always Rob, nice job.

    Reply
  • ChopStYcks

    October 2, 2019

    hey rob i love your videos and im wondering if youre going to disney october or november so i have the slight chance of meeting you

    Reply
  • D Y

    October 2, 2019

    NATURE knows what it's doing. Every plant and animal and insect etc has a purpose.

    Reply
  • Greg Severi

    October 2, 2019

    You used some footage from Stockton CA where I'm from and let me tell you the plant is horribly invasive. In the summer when it dies it stinks up the area around the delta. We were one of the places they floated the idea of bringing in hippos to eat the plants. I think they should of done it!

    Reply
  • MrDanJB85

    October 2, 2019

    I remember getting a book somewhere in Disney World back in 1995 that talked about this project – I can't remember the title. This project stood out from the other things in that book partly because its very EPCOT (in the original meaning) in its flavour. More recently I had a look to see if I could find the facility on Google Earth; now I know why I couldn't spot it – thanks Rob!

    Reply
  • A J

    October 2, 2019

    Manatees love to eat water hyacinth and water lettuce here in Florida

    Reply
  • Kurt Katie

    October 2, 2019

    Thanks Rob. Another geeky video.

    Reply
  • NoahRB

    October 3, 2019

    Sooo they need to know what do do with the plants? How did burning the plants not come to mind? put em in an incinerator

    Reply
  • David

    October 3, 2019

    Amazing. Thanks

    Reply
  • James Rogers

    October 3, 2019

    Hear me out, what if you were to do this but in a sky scraper with each floor it's own pond. Then you have 50-100 times the capacity for the same physical footprint. The you could staged the floors and automate the removal process of the old plants

    Reply
  • Jorge Rafael Nogueras

    October 3, 2019

    I love the videos you make about lesser-known Disney projects such as this one. Keep up the good work! 😃

    Reply
  • RWHaulbrook

    October 3, 2019

    introduce hippos to get rid of the plants? hippos are wildly dangerous to humans

    Reply
  • From The Mitten

    October 3, 2019

    Rob thank you so much for these awesome videos

    Reply
  • Jay Sculler

    October 3, 2019

    In September of 1983 my family went on a trip to Disney World. At the time, Disney offered a special educational tour for kids my age that included among other things, the water hyacinth site and the Utilidors. In a box somewhere, I still have the educational materials that were provided. Over the years, I'd wondered what happened to the project. Thanks for yet another great video!!

    Reply
  • Emilio Avina

    October 3, 2019

    Pls what is the intro song pls rob I need to know

    Reply
  • Sprinkle Tinkle

    October 3, 2019

    Water hyacinth can't possibly taste any worse than lettuce. Let's harvest that stuff and feed it to the vegans.

    Reply
  • edvaira6891

    October 3, 2019

    Just a really neat, cool idea of what to do with a bunch of, basically, WEEDS!

    Reply
  • S. Gabriel

    October 3, 2019

    This was fascinating. Thank you!

    Reply
  • Richard Ludwig

    October 3, 2019

    It’s a shame – Disney has and does employ so many interesting scientific projects that it would be interesting to explore all of these in an exhibit: “The Science of Disney”. The perfect place to do something like that would be Epcot, but sadly it has turned away from education and science to focus on thrill rides and IP.

    Reply
  • Otsenre s

    October 3, 2019

    Neat stuff and great video! 😎

    Reply
  • David Blood

    October 4, 2019

    I am so glad that you covered this, and agree that it is a great example of what Walt envisioned. I actually still wish the company would do something like Walt's vision but with a strong focus on sustainability. Call it Greencot.

    Reply
  • sim1994

    October 4, 2019

    Water hyacinth was briefly mentioned as an alternative source of energy in the second movie in Theater II of the original Universe of Energy at EPCOT Center. I never really knew what they were referring to. Now I do.

    Reply
  • Backyard Expeditions

    October 4, 2019

    They can dipleate oxygen from ecosystems, was part of the nightmare that was invasive species in lake Victoria

    Reply
  • Gary Meola, Jr.

    October 5, 2019

    Amazing the things Disney gets involved in. Thanks for another great video Rob. Always learn something interesting on this channel !

    Reply
  • Bryan Decker

    October 6, 2019

    I never comment on anything, but just saw you on tv! Never would I have expected that! Congrats!!!

    Reply
  • NixPix

    October 7, 2019

    So Funny I have gotten side tracked watching lots of gardening videos and then this video popped up among them LOL

    Reply
  • JohnYChen

    October 7, 2019

    Interesting video. I did a little googling and it turns out you can also eat these plants.

    Reply

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