By Joel Hall
In recent years, government officials from as far away as Australia, Mexico, and Newfoundland have traveled to Clayton County to learn how a place without a natural water supply is able to reclaim and treat millions of gallons of water using a man-made environment.
In addition to providing a habitat for hundreds of bird and animal species, the Huie Constructed Treatment Wetlands site has provided the Clayton County Water Authority (CCWA) a way to treat nearly 10 million gallons of water a day, at less monetary and environmental cost than traditional methods.
Donnie Kiblinger, supervisor for Natural Treatment Systems with the CCWA, said prior to the 1970s, water treated at the W.B. Casey Water Reclamation Facility was sent to a pumping station and sprayed into the forests using an elaborate sprinkler system.
While providing a natural method of tertiary treatment before the water was reintroduced into the environment, the system was expensive and difficult to maintain, according to Kiblinger. He said a seizable maintenance staff was required to replace pipes and ensure sprinklers were functioning properly.
"The system reached the end of it's design life," said Kiblinger. "It was either time to rehab it, or go with a different system."
It was then, the CCWA researched providing tertiary water treatment through constructed wetlands. The first phase of the wetlands was operational in 2005, with second- and third-phase expansions taking place in 2006 and 2007.
The plants in the wetland system provide a home for waterfowl, deer, turkey, ducks, frogs, otters, beavers, and other animals, while naturally removing nitrogen, phosphorus, and other particulate matter from the water, before it is sent back into county reservoirs. The absence of spraying cuts down on staffing needs, electricity use, and keeps reservoir levels constant by cutting down on evaporation loss.
"The footprint is a lot smaller," said Kiblinger. "It takes less acres to treat more water. It takes less energy because it's all gravity flow. We've gone from maintaining things like sprinklers and pipe, to just vegetation maintenance."
Kiblinger said the three phases of the constructed wetlands, spanning 140 acres, have saved the CCWA $50,000 worth of electrical costs yearly and eliminated the need for 300 miles of pipe and 20,000 sprinklers. A fourth phase of the wetlands, expected to be operational by early 2010, will expand the wetlands by an additional 125 acres and completely eliminate the W.B. Casey plant's need for spray irrigation, Kiblinger added.
Lindy Farmer, general manager of the Henry County Water and Sewerage Authority, said Henry County has fewer water consumers, and greater access to lakes and rivers, than Clayton County. He saluted the CCWA for using innovative means to recapture more of its water.
"[The CCWA] has really been a model agency in the state of Georgia," said Farmer. "You have to give them their dues."
Farmer said Henry County "has more natural resources" and thus, "more options," in regards to cleaning and treating water. While he believes Henry County is not moving in the direction of constructed wetlands, he said the country is researching ways to more directly discharge treated water back into creeks and rivers.
Mike Thomas, CCWA general manager, said the constructed wetlands are a more "cost-effective" way to treat water.
"It really is a unique system," said Thomas. "With the previous method, most of the water went into the soil. With this method, it's a lot more direct. It's a critical part of our treatment process."
Kiblinger said the technology has been gaining popularity around the world and that many people from the world have come to Jonesboro to see it in motion.
"We have had people from all over the world look at our system and try to implement those ideas there, especially in dry regions of the world," said Kiblinger. "Clayton County is not blessed with a huge river to draw from, so we have to manage our water very carefully."