Catawba recycles geothermal runoff to cut water use

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Mark Wineka
Chalk this one up as a good news, bad news story.
Good news for Catawba College, which is saving roughly $20,000 a year in water costs.
Bad news for the city of Salisbury, which has lost that same amount in water sales to Catawba.
Two years ago, thanks to a monetary contribution from trustee Jim Hurley, the college sank a 20,000-gallon storage tank into the ground near the Mariam and Robert Hayes Fieldhouse and erected a pumphouse on top of it.
Runoff water coming from the geothermal system that heats and cools the fieldhouse keeps the underground tank full.
It also provides the water to irrigate all of the college’s sports fields, representing about 30 acres of land.
Some 300 student-athletes depend on those fields.
Before Hurley provided the resources for the tank and 20-horsepower pump, the return well for the fieldhouse’s geothermal system could not recycle all the water from the supply well.
That extra water wound its way through ditches and ended up flowing into Grants Creek. It also contributed to the extremely wet conditions at times around the borders of the athletic fields (Frock Fields) behind Newman Park.
“It was just very swampy,” recalls Catawba College Senior Vice President Tom Childress.
Meanwhile, the college still paid for enormous amounts of city water to keep its athletic fields from going dry.
Now all that irrigation water comes from the underground tank, and Shuford Field and Newman Park owe their lush grass to the geothermal fieldhouse, as do the playing and practice fields for football, men and women’s soccer, lacrosse and women’s softball and field hockey.
“It’s not a gift that will stop,” Henry Haywood, director of facilities for Catawba, says of the Hurley donation. “It’s a gift that will keep on giving.”
Childress says a previous gift from Billie Johnson also helped to close the open ditches and put all the piping underground.
The area where the tank and pumphouse are located (behind Newman Park and near the fieldhouse) is roped off because it’s a tailgating area during the football season. College officials didn’t want any vehicles parking on top of the tank.
Haywood and Childress estimate that the tank and pump will pay for themselves within a three-and-a-half to four-year period from its 2007 installation.
“So we’re just about breaking even,” Childress said.
Scotty Powell, who heads landscape operations for the college, says the drought conditions of the past two years probably would have forced Catawba to pay close to $30,000 each year to keep the fields in shape, had it not been for the new water supply.
The tank never runs dry.
“It’s constantly staying full,” Powell said. If Catawba had to, Powell says, it could run 108,000 gallons of water over 12 hours thanks to the water supply and new pump, which also produces more pressure to the sprinkler heads than the city water provided previously.
There have been other benefits from the recycled water. It has none of the chemicals, such as chlorine, that were in the city water. The fields take less fertilizer because of that, and there’s no danger of the chlorine creating a bad chemical reaction with the fertilizer, Powell says.
Childress says the lushness of the fields actually helps in the recruitment of athletes who come to the school on officials visits.
“It really helped the appearance of the fields,” he says.