It’s a wild life at water treatment facility
Water treatment plants are usually on the tour itinerary for public works officials or students, But Georgia’s Clayton County water treatment facility, officially the E.L. Huie, Jr., Land Application Facility, is a well-known stop for local and regional Audubon Club members, who frequent the plant to view its vast array of wildlife.
“It’s been known as a wildlife spot for some time,” says Howard Hunt, Zoo Atlanta’s curator of reptiles and a self-proclaimed “wildlife nut.”
The treatment facility, actually a series of plants that treat both wastewater and drinking water, has always attracted migratory waterfowl, but recent efforts by the county water authority are helping to make it a miniature preserve. For example, Hunt’s suggestion that the authority plant bushes to attract butterflies resulted in a recent visit by monarch butterflies on their way to Central and South America.
Lonnie Philpot, the authority’s superintendent of land management, has made the facility’s maintenance as a natural area something of a personal crusade. “We used to just worry about how the facility worked,” he says. “Now we’re making it a point to make it attractive.”
In turn, watching the wildlife gives Philpot an indication of how the treatment plants are doing. “Nature is a barometer for the system,” he says. “If the natural system is working, we know the water is good.”
Additionally, the expense is minimal. “In the short term, it probably costs more to maintain the plant for wildlife, but in the long term it’s probably cheaper,” he says. “The initial cost for the plants can be high, but we make up for it in maintenance costs. We don’t have to mow as much.”
Besides the butterfly bushes, the treatment facility also features silky dogwood, elderberries and Carolina jasmine. Boxes have been installed on telephone poles in an experimental attempt to attract bats. “Some of the boxes are white, and some are black,” Philpot says. “We’re trying to find out what the bats prefer.” Should the bats move in, they will join the plant’s well-established purple martin colonies in helping control insects.
The plant is also home to deer, fox and turkeys, as well as various raptors. “There’s a lot of action there,” says Hunt, waxing poetic about having seen a bald eagle fishing.
Despite the fact that hosting large numbers of bird-watchers is not exactly function of a water treatment plant, Philpot and his co-workers are looking at expanding their efforts. Plans are in the works for a naturalist to be on site during the summer, and the facility has meeting places and rental areas available to the public.
Just 20 miles south of Atlanta, the plant’s importance as a unique habitat cannot be underestimated, Hunt says. “These days our open space is being so rapidly filled up,” he says. “We are filling every little nook and cranny, and space is precious to wildlife. The closer you get to a city, the less and less wildlife you find because it’s a sterile environment. Encouraging wildlife is an act of desperation because it will be a much lonelier planet when we have a monoculture of humans.”