Georgia Wetlands Offer Cure for Drought

Wetlands i i

hide captionIn August 2000, Clayton County, Ga., began building a unique water treatment system that includes wetlands and reservoirs. Nearly 10 million gallons of treated wastewater flows through the system before making its way to the county's reservoirs.

Kathy Lohr, NPR
Wetlands

In August 2000, Clayton County, Ga., began building a unique water treatment system that includes wetlands and reservoirs. Nearly 10 million gallons of treated wastewater flows through the system before making its way to the county's reservoirs.

Kathy Lohr, NPR
Pond i i

hide captionThe water to the wetlands is piped four miles from the treatment plants. Shown here is a gate that regulates water among the two dozen ponds in the preserve. In the distance, water enters the pond.

Kathy Lohr, NPR
Pond

The water to the wetlands is piped four miles from the treatment plants. Shown here is a gate that regulates water among the two dozen ponds in the preserve. In the distance, water enters the pond.

Kathy Lohr, NPR
Bulldozer i i

hide captionBulldozers move red clay to make way for terraced ponds — the fourth phase of the wetlands. Construction is expected to be completed in 2010.

Kathy Lohr, NPR
Bulldozer

Bulldozers move red clay to make way for terraced ponds — the fourth phase of the wetlands. Construction is expected to be completed in 2010.

Kathy Lohr, NPR

For the last couple of years, the southeastern U.S. has faced one of the most severe droughts on record. In Georgia, you couldn't water your lawn. You couldn't wash your car in your driveway. The state even talked about shutting down swimming pools this year, and some worried the area would run out of drinking water.

But one community has not had to worry. Nearly two decades ago, Clayton County began building a unique water treatment system that includes wetlands and reservoirs.

"I like to say it's raining everyday in Clayton County because we're putting right now about 10 million gallons back in our water supply," says Mike Thomas, general manager of the Clayton County Water Authority.

Thomas says the reservoirs here are full and have never been in danger of being too low. That's because back in the 1980s, folks realized there wasn't enough water to support the growth, so they decided to build a system of wetlands and reservoirs that would help them save water.

Clayton County Wetlands

Amid the 4,000 acres of wetlands in Jonesboro, Ga., are graded pools used to filter water. The water is pumped in from a treatment plant and flows into these ponds, which are filled with all kinds of thick vegetation, including cattails, native grasses and water lilies.

"You can see right down here where the water's bubbling up," Thomas says, pointing to one of the ponds.

The treated wastewater enters the wetlands and gradually works its way through several pools. Thomas says that gives it plenty of exposure to the plants and animals that help remove any additional pollutants or nutrients.

The water in the ponds looks clear and doesn't smell bad. There have been complaints from neighbors not about the odor but about something else entirely: frogs.

"At night when they really get active, it can really get noisy because there are so many frogs," Thomas says.

Before these wetlands were created, the county used an extensive sprinkler system to clean wastewater. It sprayed treated wastewater in the forest and let nature filter out the impurities. But Thomas says the old system was expensive, and the county was running out of forest land.

"Before, we were maintaining all these pipelines and sprinklers. Now about the only maintenance activity we do out here is to mow the grass, and we usually only do that maybe two to three times during the summer," Thomas says.

He tries to keep weeds and trees from growing in some places but he says Mother Nature takes care of the rest.

From the wetlands, the water runs over a gate and into a reservoir, one of four that were built to store billions of gallons of water. Residents use about 26 million gallons of water a day and through this system, the county reclaims 10 million gallons of that.

The price tag is also an advantage — it can be as little as half the cost of building a regular wastewater treatment plant.

This idea probably won't work for bigger cities like Atlanta because it requires a lot of land. Still, it's attractive for smaller communities.

And there's an added benefit: Officials can create a nature preserve for those who live nearby.

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