By Diane Wagner
Looking at a marshy wetland, with its nutrient-rich waters, exotic plants and teeming wildlife, a casual observer might see the pristine expanse as a disappearing remnant of the past.
But, as water and sewer systems continue to expand in the fast-growing Southern Crescent, officials are adding a new skill to their repertoires of pipe-laying and plant construction: the creation of natural habitats.
Chris Wood is the spokesman for the Henry County Water and Sewerage Authority and the Clayton County Water Authority. Wood said wetlands are a key component of both operations.
"In Henry County, they're primarily used for mitigation. In Clayton County, they're part of the wastewater treatment process," he said. "A third use is recreation, such as you see with the Newman Wetlands Center's interactive education programs."
The Newman Center, on Freeman Road in Hampton, is hosting a free wetlands and watershed festival on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Senior Conservationist Carol Lambert said activities include environmental exhibits by county, state and federal agencies, live animals, guided walks, nature crafts and scavenger hunts.
"It's fun for all ages," she said. "Our goal is for people to have more of an awareness of wetlands and why they're important, their role in protecting the watershed."
The Clayton County Water Authority built the preserve and education building to mitigate the habitat loss that came from construction of the Shoal Creek Reservoir.
The Henry County Water and Sewerage Authority is creating its own set of wetlands to offset losses from the Tussahaw Reservoir, under construction at the Henry/Butts county line.
The Herds Creek project in Jasper County involves preservation of about 100 acres along the creek and the re-planting of indigenous plants.
A bigger undertaking is the addition of about 150 acres of wetlands along Mackey Creek, which runs from Henry County into Butts County.
A flock of endangered wood storks gave its seal of approval to the Authority's first Mackey Creek project n restoration of about 200 acres n by stopping over at the site for a few weeks in December.
The latest effort entails the construction of metal water-control structures to re-hydrate an area that had been drained for farmland. More than 6,900 tons of granite quarry rocks have already been trucked in to help stabilize the restored creek channel.
"Upon completion, we will have protected the stream bank and buffer along Mackey Creek from Jackson Lake all the way to the confluence of the South River," said Rick Whiteside, owner of Wetland & Ecological Consultants, who is directing the mitigation work.
In addition to providing replacement habitat, the Clayton County Water Authority has started tying its wetlands projects into its sewer system to cut treatment costs.
Wastewater treated at the Shoal Creek Water Reclamation Facility is pumped to 55 acres of constructed wetlands on Inman Road, where it undergoes further processing. The water eventually filters into the reservoir.
Mike Thomas, CCWA project manager and lead engineer, said the cost of treating wastewater via the wetlands is $4.73 per gallon, compared with nearly $10 per gallon in a "mechanically complex" facility that discharges directly into a body of water.
"And the sample results of water leaving the wetlands are exceeding our expectations," he said.
The Authority recently awarded a $7.8 million contract to low-bidder Gary's Grading and Pipeline Co. to construct treatment wetlands at the Huie Road land application site.