12/21/08 — Mount Olive trades forest access for NCSU advice

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Mount Olive trades forest access for NCSU advice

By Steve Herring
Published in News on December 21, 2008 2:00 AM

MOUNT OLIVE -- Along with serving as a way to dispose of treated wastewater, the town's new tree farm also will be part of a research program through North Carolina State University.

The research isn't a revenue producer for the town, but already has produced some side benefits including advice on forest management and wetlands.

The university's forestry department became involved with the town after Town Manager Charles Brown had to decline an invitation to attend an urban forestry workshop at N.C. State.

In his reply, Brown offered that the town might have something to offer the college's forestry department.

"I told them we have 145 to 160 acres of trees and that it might be a research opportunity and they jumped on it," Brown said.

Two professors and two doctors from the university toured the new wastewater treatment plant and tree farm and told Brown what they wanted to do.

Brown said there is a concern now about all of the pharmaceuticals, antibiotics, growth hormones and "all of that other stuff" that goes into the wastewater system.

"There is no waste treatment plant that can remove that," Brown said. "We can take all of the other stuff out, but it does not remove those materials. In typical surface water application, using Raleigh for example, when they discharge that treated wastewater into the Neuse River all of those things go back in there and it comes to the next town downstream. They draw it out treat it for drinking water and once again those materials are not removed. Nobody knows how significant an issue it is. They are trace amounts, but it is kind of on the radar screen."

Mount Olive uses land application in its tree farm to dispose of its treated wastewater.

"One of the things they want to do is come down and take growth samples off the trees," Brown said. "Each of those trees is going to drink four gallons of water a day -- water that has gone through our plant and that has been treated and applied to the farm.

"I think what their thinking in their research is that those trees are absorbing those materials into the leaves and materials of the tree. The advantage to that would be that its being removed from the surface water system because when you harvest the trees you sort of take it (chemicals) out of the food chain."

Students will identify a tree or trees by using global positioning systems so they can go back to the same tree every time to check growth and perform testing.

"It will give us a lot of insight into what the advantages are to having those trees down there," Brown said. "Those sycamore trees have huge leaves which makes them drink more water and means they produce more oxygen."

There are 90,000 trees on the farm, all hand-planted.

Town engineers and contractors initially said it would take seven years before the trees would be ready for harvest. More will be planted as the trees are harvested.

"The department we are working with is the forest technology department at State and they think there may be a more efficient way to do that," Brown said. "Not only are they going to be doing research on the trees, they'll also be advising us on more efficient forest management techniques. We have a huge advantage we will gain by working with them."

Brown said he is unsure how much the town will make off the trees. He said he is not sure it will be enough to pay the operating cost for the farm since it is "pretty labor intensive" operation.

The trees have to be looked after, trimmed and mowed and there 120 miles of drip irrigation lines that must be maintained, he said.

"There is a lot more to operating the farm than most people realize," Brown said. "We have to have a wildlife control program. Deer can be a problem eating the trees and tearing up the drip lines."

A hog lagoon was on the plant site when the land was purchased. The town didn't just have to maintain the land in the condition it was when it was purchased -- it had to go back to pre-hog farm conditions.

"That means we had to restore wetlands that were there prior to the hog lagoons being put in," Brown said.

The town has since restored somewhere in neighborhood of 20-30 acres of wetlands that were not there when town obtained the property.

"As I understand it from the people at N.C. State you can 'bank' those wetlands, there is a wetlands mitigation program, with the state," Brown said. "Say our number is 20 acres, we can put those in the 'bank' so to speak. If a developer anywhere else in the Cape Fear watershed wants to build a subdivision or shopping center and he is going to have to disturb five acres of wetlands he can go to our account in the 'bank' and buy those five acres from the Town of Mount Olive.

"It is not an immediate revenue producer for us, but we have the potential to sell those restored wetlands for someone else to use in the watershed. Potentially it could be a significant amount of money down the road. I don't know that we would have known that without the folks from N.C. State coming down and pointing that out to us."