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Rain has been falling over the Southeast this spring, but the area is still in a drought, especially the state of Georgia. Lake Lanier, Atlanta's largest source of drinking water, is more than 14 feet below the normal level. But in Clayton County, which is south of Atlanta, people are not so worried. Nearly two decades ago this county began building an unusual water treatment system that includes wetlands and reservoirs.

NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.

KATHY LOHR: For the last couple of years, people across the Southeast have 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 didn't have to worry.

Mr. MIKE THOMAS (Clayton County Water Authority): 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.

LOHR: Mike Thomas is general manager of the Clayton County Water Authority. He says reservoirs here are full and have never been in danger. That's because 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.

(Soundbite of water splashing)

LOHR: In Jonesboro, Georgia, on a hilly patch of 4,000 acres surrounded by tall pine trees, the county graded the land and built pools to filter the water. It's pumped in from a treatment plant and flows into a pond filled with all kinds of thick vegetation, including cattails, native grasses, and water lilies.

(Soundbite of water splashing)

Mr. THOMAS: You can see right down here where the water's bubbling up? That's where the treated wastewater's entering the wetland cell and then it will gradually work its way through the entire cell, drop down to the next one, come back across, and usually work its way through about four cells. And that gives it plenty of exposure to the plants and the animals that kind of help remove any additional pollutants or nutrients that might still be in the water.

LOHR: The water looks clear and doesn't smell bad. In fact, there have been no complaints from neighbors about the odor, but about something else entirely.

Mr. THOMAS: Really the only complaint we've had was too much noise from the frogs at night. And so some of the noises you're hearing today, even during the daytime, are frog noises. So at night, when they really get active, it can really get noisy because there are so many frogs.

LOHR: Before these wetlands were built, the county used an extensive sprinkler system, spraying wastewater in the forest and letting nature filter out the impurities. But Mike Thomas with the Clayton County Water Authority says the old system was expensive and the county was running out of forestland.

Mr. THOMAS: You know, 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. You know, we're not trying to keep it like a manicured lawn. We're just trying to keep weeds and trees from growing out up in places we don't want them. So Mother Nature and gravity takes care of the rest.

(Soundbite of water rushing)

LOHR: From here, 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 is able to reclaim 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.

It probably won't work for bigger cities like Atlanta, because you need 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.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.

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