The first question I asked Kevin Lynskey, director of Miami Dade’s Department of Water and Sewer, came with a caveat he’d heard before—namely that we were going to be talking a lot about poop in the next hour, which generally made people a little uncomfortable.

Well, “uncomfortable” is the nice way of putting it; a coworker used the slang “wiggy,” which is likely more emotive of the true situation. (And, yes, “wiggy” is a real word, as it is accepted in a game of Scrabble, and that’s my bar on that.)

Lynskey, for one, admits that in the first six months of his gig at Miami Dade, he, too, was a bit wiggy about the subject.

“Time heals all wounds, though,” he joked. “You become rather immune after a while.”

And, yes, he’s heard all the jokes. All of them. Really. So, please don’t add any more in. You think it’s original, yes, but he’s heard it (and he’s heard the dirtiest version of it). Trust me.

His predecessor, he admits, was significantly more comfortable with the poop discomfort. In fact, he called himself the “king of poop” in meetings.

Lynskey passed on picking up the mantle of that particular moniker when he took the job.

But he wouldn’t mind at all, I think, being called the “king of counts.” In fact, a love of mathematical digits and statistics and data sets got him into this business. (He’s been with the Department of Water and Sewer about a year and a half. Before that, he was with the Port of Miami, clocking in all the ships floating in and out of the busiest cruise dock in the world.)

“For whatever reason, I was born liking numbers,” he said.  “It doesn’t matter what job I have, if there are a lot of numbers involved, I’m fascinated. My favorite job is looking at numbers, and this place is a wonderland of numbers.”

His newest fascination at the Department is with the data sets surrounding their COVID-19 wastewater testing, something he got them into (after reading an article on a company requesting samples back in March). They were an early adopter of that program, one of the first departments to participate.

But they didn’t stop there. They’re also a part of the EPA effort to unearth the best testing methods for consistent results and have worked with the European Union recently in a bid to understand the reach and scope of the virus globally.

But it’s that “consistent results” thing that concerns our numbers man Lynskey, as he’s seen a rather wide amount of variants with their COVID-19 testing—data that falls outside a normal range.

While they’ve seen correlation to reported spikes (so “directionally,” as he put it), the info hasn’t been consistent enough to impact community decisions (though it has supported their understanding of the spread).

“But, next time around, it will be more useful,” he said. “It’s worth treading every path, hitting every dead end and feeling out every angle. It gives us more data. So, maybe we’re not going to nail it this time, but all of these numbers will help us in the future.”

(Lynskey has a fascinating, potentially breakthrough idea on freezing what amounts to time capsules of wastewater to allow for future sampling when tracing back other disease outbreaks or studying personal health habits or even researching pockets and patterns of opioid addiction.)

During the gathering up of all these new data sets on COVID-19 numbers, however, Miami Dade’s Department of Water and Sewer was never distracted from its first and foremost data set to analyze: that of nutrients.

The build-up of nutrients (mainly nitrogen and phosphorous) remains a huge statistical mountain for many wastewater utilities. It does nasty stuff when it hangs out in big numbers (like spawning algae blooms and killing fish).

So, interesting COVID testing aside, that’s the main focus of Lynskey’s daily numbers crunching: How much is the Department contributing to nutrient issues in the area, even if it’s minute (and how do they stop contributing at all)?

“We push out 180 million gallons of water every day that contain a couple of tons of leftovers, which is 70% nutrients. Really, though, 90% of our waste is removed and gets land-applied to sod farms. But, there’s still that remaining percentage in the leftovers that we track and mull and try to find better solutions for,” he said.

The better solution they’re working on right now sounds like something out of a “save the day through science” sci-fi movie: They’re working on ways to filter that effluent (which is what treated wastewater is called), mix it with chlorine and inject it underground into what’s known as “the boulder zone.” (What’s the boulder zone? Think lots of swiss-cheese-like rocks with lots of gaps underneath lots of layers of earth. And beneath the aquifer … so out of the way of water contamination.)

You’d think solving the effluent issue and helping with COVID-19 testing and tracing would be enough data to make Lynskey more than happy, but the Department isn’t stopping there. They’re thinking out and beyond the pandemic to the more than 100,000 septic tanks in the county (and what to do about them) and to the potential use of plasma gases for waste “incineration” that doesn’t involve actually incinerating a thing (but does involve a type of “mining for metals” in the activity).

My personal favorite factoid that number-loving Lynskey shared in our chat was this: For every person on their system, they get 950 lbs. of water a day. You read that right. A day.

How much poop/waste is in all that water? 6.5 ounces.

My second favorite: That you can (potentially) mine $500 out of every ton of human waste if you do it right.

In the end, even if talking numbers doesn’t always mean talking about a certain word that makes certain people uncomfortable, it seems that talking about that certain uncomfortable word is, in fact, always about talking numbers, which suits Lynskey just fine.

Oracle customer Miami-Dade County maintains more than 8,500 miles of underground water lines, as well as about 4,100 miles of sewer lines, serving some 2.3 million residents and thousands of visitors. Learn more on their website here.

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