U.S. Mayor Article

Augusta Includes Bulrushes in Plan to Protect Watershed

By Augusta (GA) Mayor Bob Young
October 21, 2002


Mayors today know that their decisions on water and wastewater infrastructure have repercussions for the larger watershed, even though their cities may occupy only a portion of that watershed. One city's choice of treatment technology at its wastewater plant, and what comes out of the discharge pipe, can affect water quality downstream and can influence another city's choice of drinking water treatment technology. And choosing the appropriate technology and level of wastewater treatment at the plant can determine whether the effluent can be successfully reclaimed and reused.

The process of renewing Augusta's water infrastructure has been underway for the past several years, and will continue for several more. The ultimate goal is to develop and implement a water resources plan that meets the needs of our citizens, industries and institutions, and one that pays special attention to the environment and ecosystem. We want all stakeholders to benefit from our attention to environmental stewardship.

One of the more important lessons we have learned along the way is that in finding solutions to our water quality problems we do not have to rely exclusively on the application of costly advanced technology. We also need to be aware of, and take advantage of, natural systems. Augusta has done this, striking a balance between technology and a natural system called a "constructed wetland." We have learned once again that, with some help, nature can correct many of the problems man has created.

In 1993, the city evaluated several options for achieving new discharge limitations at its Messerly Wastewater Treatment Facility. One involved relocation of the discharge directly to the Savannah River; another involved continued discharge to Butler Creek, but with advanced wastewater treatment. The city chose the Butler Creek option, and this involved the construction of an advanced wastewater treatment system that utilized constructed wetlands technology, seen at the time as an innovative and environmentally friendly approach to meeting wastewater discharge standards. Georgia Environmental Protection Division engineering manager Sam Shepherd describes it as a natural system that uses plants and ponds to polish the effluent from the treatment plaOver the last two decades, scientists and the general public have learned to value swamps, bogs, and marshes for their natural ability to clean polluted water. These shallow water wetlands exist in areas of poorly drained soils and are populated by wetland plants — such as cattails, reeds, and rushes — which typically thrive in large numbers and provide underwater surface areas to which microscopic organisms attach. The microorganisms biodegrade wastewater pollutants by using them as a food source.

Over the last two decades, scientists and the general public have learned to value swamps, bogs, and marshes for their natural ability to clean polluted water. These shallow water wetlands exist in areas of poorly drained soils and are populated by wetland plants — such as cattails, reeds, and rushes — which typically thrive in large numbers and provide underwater surface areas to which microscopic organisms attach. The microorganisms biodegrade wastewater pollutants by using them as a food source.

For Augusta, which, like most cities, has spent millions of dollars to combat water pollution problems, success came through bulrushes, a modest but effective agent in a natural system. This marsh-loving grass, along with cattails and other species, is now being used on a large scale to filter the city's treated sewage before it enters Butler Creek and the Savannah River downstream.

In 1996, as part of the mitigation plan for the loss of 27 acres of natural wetlands during construction of a tertiary wastewater facility, the city provided seed funding to establish the EcoSystems Institute, now the Southeastern Natural Sciences Academy. The mission of this non-profit foundation is to promote environmental stewardship through education, research, and public outreach. The Academy's vision of an outdoor education and research campus now exists in the form of the Phinzy Swamp Nature Park.

In 1999, the Augusta-Richmond County Commission voted to allow privatization of its wastewater facility and wetlands management, and Operations Management International (OMI) took over operations. The shift to private operation was intended to save money, and it did: After one year, OMI had saved the County $703,000 in operating costs, penalty collections and overhead.

We believe our city's constructed wetlands project, completed two years ago, is one of the more creative assaults on pollution in this part of the State. Augusta Utilities Director Max Hicks says that while we-re not the first to do this, our project is certainly one of the largest.

Dr. Gene Eidson, who helped design the wetlands project, believes Augusta has taken a leadership role in the use of innovative technology. "I have spoken at untold numbers of workshops and seminars, and major cities throughout the Southeast are contacting us about similar technology. It makes Augusta look good."

Our citizens, of course, are the primary beneficiaries of the partnership of SNSA, OMI and the city of Augusta. The city has a water professional operating the treatment facility at a cost savings, and the Central Savannah Region has an educational facility and nature park that is second to none.

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