When Kevin Sorrow took his children to Legion Field recently, he pointed to the pavilions and told them he had a role in the construction of the new bandstand, the pavilion and the former county fair exhibition buildings.
“This was something we did,” he said he told his children about his work with the Covington/Newton Land Application System. “It will be here for a long time.”
A forester, Sorrow is the assistant manager to Water Reclamation Manager David Croom, and is also the city’s arborist and a registered forester. Sorrow, Croom and Darrin Smith, Operations Manager, helped harvest and mill the pine boards needed for the construction of the facilities. They were able to do that, in part, because of the city’s and Newton County Water and Sewer Authority’s waste water.
The land application system (LAS) allows the city to use the waste water from Covington and Newton County Sewer and Water Authority and pump it from two holding ponds onto around 1,900 acres of trees. The waste water, which has been through two treatment steps, is rich with nitrogen and phosphorous.
“The trees absorb the nutrients they need, which they need to grow,” said David Croom Waster Water Reclamation Manager.
Waste water irrigation is the third and final step of the reclamation process, and the now-cleansed water sinks back into the ground, becoming drinking water.
“It all used to go into Jackson Lake,” Croom said, “but in the 1970s, [the Environmental Protection Division (EPD)] decided to take the nutrients out of the water. They found allowing the nutrient rich waste water into the streams that flowed into Jackson Lake was causing algae to grow on the lake.”
Croom said there were three options: to use more chemicals to treat the water, to use more personnel, or to use the land. “The found out the land and trees could treat the water,” he said.
The city soon opted to purchase 864 acres of what had been, until the 1950s, cotton fields. Before long, the acreage had reforested itself. Soon, the trees — some hardwoods, but mostly loblolly pines — were competing with each other and with the scrub and grasses for nutrients, dwarfing growth.
“Originally, 85 percent of the money it cost to start up the system was provided for by grants,” Croom said. “We had to remove nutrients either using chemicals, personnel or the land. It was more cost efficient to use the land. It’s cheaper per 1,000 gallons, costing less than a dollar per 1,000 gallon pumped.
“There are a lot of smaller municipal or county land application systems, but they are smaller,” said Croom. “The Covington/Newton County system is one of the three largest in the state.”
Money from tree sales is used for capital improvements, Croom said. “We’ve sold more than a million in timber since beginning.
“The LAS is a great example of government entities working together,” Croom said. “It not only removes waste water nutrients at a relatively low cost, but also provides green space, benefits the atmosphere with carbon sequestration and promotes a renewable resource that provides revenue.”
Counting years by rings
It’s almost instantly evident from the size of each tree ring displayed on a crosscut piece of pine that the trees definitely responded to the nitrogen-rich water. While the first years of the tree’s life had relatively narrow bands, the last 20 widened considerably.
The original purchase of 864 acres in 1979 has expanded twice since then to 2,000 acres, most covered in trees or grass. The acreage is divided into 14 fields. The irrigation system consists of 100 miles of piping and 9,000 sprinkler heads. Each field is watered at least once a week, and receives between one and one-and-a-half-inches of water.
“We only irrigate one field at a time,” Croom said. “Maintain such a system of irrigation lines and sprinklers can be overwhelming, but using a systematic approach each field is scheduled for wet and dry inspection.”
Croom said that weather conditions like high winds and heavy rains not only affect the maintenance of the irrigation system, they can affect the trees. “If it’s 30-degrees outside when you spray water, it turns to ice, so you have to be aware of [protecting] your thinner trees.”
Operations Manager Darrin Smith is responsible for inspecting the irrigation system, both while it’s running and while it’s shut off. Broken or damaged sprinklers may not be detectable until water is running through the system, he said.
Smith and other staff monitor the water in ground wells and as it returns to the Yellow River and Dried Indian Creek waterways. According to Croom, though filtering water through soil layers before it enters the groundwater aquifer, or natural reservoir, is a natural process, the EPD regulates the discharge via permits.
Soil sampling and erosion control are also part of the monitoring, Smith said. There are buffer zones of grass, trees and scrub that protect houses, roads and rivers, to prevent contaminated water from running into the rivers.
Since 1979, Sorrow said, “We’ve harvested about 80 percent of the site.”
The tree lots are on different schedules for thinning, clear cut and harvesting. Sorrow said the fields are harvested and replanted every 20- to 25-years. He’s quick to point out that the land application system is first about waste water reclamation, the timber management second.
Good stewards of the land
According to the city’s certified arborist and registered forester, the first step in taking care of the trees is a forest management plan. Sorrow was instrumental in drawing up a timber management plan that led the Forest Stewardship Program to award the city the designation of “Outstanding Forest Steward” in 2004.
“Though timber production is not the number one goal of the LAS, it does provide an opportunity to generate revenue through timber sales,” Croom said. “Forest management includes clear cuts and select thinning, as well as timely replanting of harvested areas. It also includes managing Streamside Management Zones and other Best Management Practices.”
Croom said the Georgia Forestry Commission has also recognized a 16-foot in diameter river birch on site, naming it a state champion tree. Recently, he said, bald cypress trees were planted in wetland areas of the land application site, and many native Georgia pine species, including longleaf, shortleaf and hemlock, have been planted.
“If it had not been used for the land application system, the 2,000 acres would have been developed,” Sorrow said.
The LAS site also provides habitat for wildlife such as deer and turkey.
Around 100 of the 2,000 acres are leased annually to a local farmer, who uses the land for corn, soybeans and winter wheat crops. “He gets the benefit of the water and nutrients, and he manages the land for us.”
“If the cornfields were grass, we’d have to be doing the maintenance,” Croom said. “We work with the farmer around how much water he needs.”
Keeping it in house
The idea to use trees harvested from the Covington-Newton County LAS site has its root in 2012, according to Randy Vinson, Director of Planning and Zoning.
“What triggered the idea of milling the lumber ourselves came from a project at Academy Springs Park back in 2012 where we had several old oak trees that had to be removed from rights of way and it seemed such a shame to just let them rot or be cut up for fire wood,” Vinson said. “So we hired a person with a portable saw mill to come cut the oak logs into timbers to build benches and picnic tables for the park.
“The folks at Land Application saw him milling the lumber and suggested we propose to the council buying our own saw mill so they could cut lumber for many different projects,” he said. The council authorized the purchase.
Vinson said the idea of using Land Application timber arose during the design phase for the improvements for Legion Fields. “The historic use of the site has been as the county’s fairgrounds and as such, [the park] has an agrarian heritage.”
The original buildings, including the barns and exhibition hall, were built from rough cut pine lumber, he said.
“Since the city has its own stand of timber, we thought it might add an interesting narrative to the renovation of the Legion Field Fairgrounds if we cut our own lumber from our own trees,” he said.
To mill the lumber for the three Legion Fields’ projects, Smith said, it took about 200 logs harvested over a year, beginning in 2014. The city purchased a small sawmill, which was used to remove a cut tree’s bark, square up the tree before slicing it into the board. Though small and portable, the sawmill could mill a 16-foot-long tree, 36-inches in diameter.
Most of the trees harvested for the Legion Field projects were isolated trees not included in past or future harvests, Croom said. After the trunks were milled, they were taken to Legion Field, where they were allowed to dry.
“It’s surprising the size of [the saw mill] what we did with it,” Sorrow said. “Randy wanted to use our lumber, to be sustainable in the community.
“We’re proud of it [milling the lumber,” he said. “Darren put his hand on every board … We love what we did and we wanted it done the best we could.”
“We saw it from tree to board,” Croom agreed.