Living Machine

We believe in the wisdom of nature's design. We know that soil, water, plants, and wild creatures depend upon each other and are vital to human life. We recognize that each living thing links to many others in the chain of nature. We believe that persistent research into the intricate patterns of outdoor life will help to assure the wise use of earth's abundance. So we will be vigilant to protect wilderness areas, refuges, and parks and to encourage good use of nature's storehouse of resources.   - Statement of Audubon philosophy from "Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, a Self-guided Tour of the Boardwalk," 1960.

The world is a vast repository of unappreciated or unknown biological strategies that have immense importance for humans if we can develop a science of integrating the stories embedded in nature in the basic systems that sustain us. The survival of civilization may well require that we enter into the natural world and use its teachings to reshape and redefine our tools and technologies.   - John Todd, March 1990


The Corkscrew Swamp is an incredibly magnificent natural attraction. With its cathedral-like old growth cypress forest and abundant resident wildlife, it offers some of the best wildlife and nature viewing and photographic experiences in the world. But when it was established in 1954, it was a remote wilderness, attracting fewer than 10,000 visitors annually in its early years.

Forty years later, however, attendance surpassed 100,000 visitors a year and the increase in visitors overwhelmed the sanctuary facilities. Accommodations were made in most areas and eventually improvements came: a new boardwalk was finished in 1996 and ground was broken in October, 1998, for an adjacent new visitor/education center. But the inability to handle waste water from the rest room facilities was an immediate, intolerable, and illegal problem. At the 100,000 visitor level, Florida law required the Sanctuary to build a sewage system.


Conventional wisdom recommended two small "package" plants working in tandem, both running full speed during the tourist season and only one during the off-season. The problem with this traditional solution involved questionable efficiency and reliability. Maintenance, chemical additives, the ultimate quality of the effluent, and the large amount of space needed (several acres) were also major concerns.


Enter John Todd of Ocean Arks International. He designed waste water treatment systems - called Living Machines - that used sunlight, bacteria, green plants, and animals to restore water to pure conditions.

Dr. Todd proposed a Living Machine for Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary that would occupy an area of only 70x70 feet, purify wastes without additives, and recycle 90 percent of the purified water back into the restrooms for reuse in the toilets. This innovative system also cost substantially less than the conventional technology.

During the fall of 1993, National Audubon Society worked with Dr. Todd to design a treatment system unique to Corkscrew Swamp. Permits were submitted to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and required nearly six months for processing. The system was considered experimental by the DEP and required more extensive monitoring than less efficient treatment plants that served entire towns.

Construction began in May, 1994, and was completed in October, 1994. Corkscrew now has the first Living Machine treatment system permitted in Florida.


The Living Machine mimics nature because it is a natural water restoration system instead of an artificial water treatment plant. Its innovative aquatic treatment system restores waste water to near-drinkable quality using native, nutrient-absorbing wetland plants and animals. The water that passes through the system is typically more pure than water that comes from municipal water treatment plants.

The key to accomplishing this is combining living organisms chosen specifically to perform certain functions and placing them in a contained enviromnent -- a Living Machine, or what Dr. Todd refers to as "half engineered artifact and half wild nature."


Waste is first pumped to two below-ground 10,000-gallon fiberglass tanks for initial anaerobic digestion.

Then it goes to two parallel series of five 2,500-gallon tanks, each of which is furiously aerated and copiously supplied with bacteria, green plants from algae to trees, snails, shrimp, insects, and fish. Here ammonia and organic nitrogen are converted to nitrates. Each one of the five tank-series is capable of handling 75% of the maximum daily flow. Water then flows into a sixth tank where the water is pumped out of the top to the next step, and any remaining sediment is pumped from the bottom back to the anaerobic tanks. There, the sediment begins the cycle again to be eliminated.

The process then continues in two 30'x30' plastic-lined, artificial marshes filled with crushed limestone. The marshes are planted with typical wetland species from Corkscrew Swamp including alligator flag, arrowhead, pickerel weed, blue flag iris, and swamp lily that remove the last vestiges of nitrogen through the root systems and convert them to harmless nitrogen gas.

When the effluent exits these marshes, it is clean. But to satisfy state regulators, it is disinfected with chlorine, pumped to a holding tank, and then pumped to a chamber to dechlorinate the water with sodium sulfite. The water is recycled into the restrooms for flushing.

A separate line brings potable water from the drinking water system for hand-washing sinks and drinking fountains.


The Living Machine is also an educational opportunity. The entire facility is open to the public and interpreted with signs and displays.

links to more information:
Ocean Arks International
Penn State University
Living Machines, Inc. (Taos NM)
Solar-powered Backyard Living Machine (Washington DC)
more articles:
Putting Human Waste Back in its Place: at the Bottom of the Food Chain
Greenhouses that Grow Clean Water: Solar Aquatic Treatment of Wastewater
Horizons: Living Machines
Nine Principles for Designing Living Machines

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