Tallahassee’s spray irrigation field for water reuse provides an ideal site for releasing raptors rescued by a wildlife hospital.
In summer 2015, a rehabilitated bald eagle and five orphaned Mississippi kites were released to the Florida skies from the award-winning Tallahassee Wastewater Reuse Facility, known as the Southeast Farm.
The location was chosen by officials of a wildlife hospital who had helped the eagle recover from an emaciated condition and nurtured the crow-sized kites to maturity. “It was really a big deal around here, even though we didn’t know about it until about a week before the release,” says Joe Cheatham, manager of the Wastewater Treatment Division for Florida’s capital city. “It was a big media event, and the mayor and city commission members were involved.”
Room to roam
The release site was chosen because a large number of Mississippi kites had taken up residence at the facility. It seemed like a good spot for the fledglings to learn from adult kites before the entire flock began their annual migration to South America, according to members of the local Audubon Society chapter.
The raptors were discovered by local wildlife lovers who spearheaded their treatment, care and release. The eagle had lost half its weight and was suffering from lead poisoning. The kites had fallen from their nest and had been abandoned.
“The Southeast Farm is 2,500 acres of wide-open space, and made it a natural release point for the birds,” says Cheatham. The plant began operation in the early 1980s and is one of the most advanced facilities of its type in the world. Effluent from Tallahassee’s 26.5 mgd Thomas P. Smith (TPS) Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant is pumped by five 300 hp Peerless vertical turbine pumps to the Southeast Farm through 8.5 miles of 36-inch pipe.
Sixteen center-pivot spray towers at the farm each irrigate over a 0.25-mile radius with 22 spray nozzles. More than 17 mgd of effluent is used to irrigate crops such as soybeans, corn and sorghum, grown for cattle feed by a contract farmer. Hay is also grown there and is sold for silage and for erosion control at roadside construction projects. Because of low nitrogen content of the effluent, the farmer receives payments to offset the lower crop yields.
A portion of flow is diverted from the treatment plant to the recently completed Tram Road Reuse Facility, where it gets additional treatment before being used for irrigation on golf courses, roadsides and general landscaping. All of the city’s effluent meets state Department of Environmental Protection beneficial reuse standards.
Positive recognition is nothing new to the Wastewater Division. Among its many awards are:
- U.S. EPA Most Effective and Innovative Reclamation Reuse Program, 1995
- Florida Water Environmental Association David W. York Reuse Award, 1997 and 2014
- FWEA Biosolids Award, 2015
The TPS facility also received the FWEA Earle B. Phelps Award as The Best Operated and Maintained Advanced Wastewater Treatment Facility.
The crowning achievement was the 2015 Florida Governor’s Sterling Award for Excellence for achieving role model status in continuous improvement and quality. The city’s environmental management system was one of the first in the nation certified under ISO 14001-2015, the latest international environmental standard.
“The recent awards definitely showcase our dedicated and highly skilled workers in the city’s Underground Utilities/Public Infrastructure Department,” says Cheatham.
The Southeast Farm is not advertised as a bird watching destination, although for several years birders were allowed to visit. The Tallahassee International Airport is nearby, so birds are now discouraged from flight in the area. “We have done a lot over the years to improve and use our effluent to benefit the environment,” says Cheatham. “Even though we don’t try to attract the birds, we’re still a pretty unique facility.”