By Debra Segal and Robert Knight
Debra Segal, M.S. is an environmental scientist who has assisted in designing, permitting, and monitoring treatment wetlands in Florida, including Gainesville’s Sweetwater Wetland Park and the Lake Hancock Outfall Wetland. She is also a volunteer for the Alachua Audubon Society.
Robert Knight, Ph.D. is co-author of Treatment Wetlands and is a pioneer of treatment wetland design, operation, and performance. He has been instrumental in incorporating productive and safe bird and other wildlife habitat in treatment wetlands and has been active in the design and/or operation of many of the systems described in this blog.
Some of the most productive birding hotspots in Florida are man-made treatment wetlands that were designed to remove nutrients and pollutants from treated wastewater and stormwater. Increasing wastewater flows and stormwater runoff are the inevitable results of increasing human populations. But a growing number of communities in Florida and worldwide, are turning this liability into an asset by initially treating this water through conventional advanced treatment technologies and then recycling the partially purified water into wetland systems designed to provide final purification cost-effectively. One ancillary benefit of these treatment wetlands is their high biological productivity that supports complex and abundant wildlife populations, including many wetland-dependent birds. With additional forethought and some additional cost, these treatment wetlands are becoming important destinations for bird watching and nature photography.
Target one of the many man-made wetlands in Florida for your next birding destination and you will likely see many exciting birds. Located along Florida’s Space Coast, the Ritch Glissom Memorial Wetlands at Viera (i.e., Viera Wetlands) is one of the most popular birding locations in Florida. Designed to further improve water quality in the water discharged from the adjacent wastewater treatment facility, the Viera Wetlands attracts thousands of out-of-town visitors to this birding mecca where 239 species of birds have been recorded on the eBird database.
The 1,200-acre Orlando Wilderness Park was one of the first constructed treatment wetlands in Florida and was designed to polish millions of gallons of wastewater daily from neighboring Orlando before discharging the cleansed water into the St. Johns River. This expansive man-made wetland is permitted to receive up to 30 million gallons of pre-treated municipal wastewater each day. What is attracting over 60,000 visitors to this wetland each year, warranting seasonal tram tours and an educational center? The answers vary but most visitors agree that the richness of birds (200+ species reported to-date), ease of viewing, outstanding opportunities for nature photography, the solitude, and several miles of walking and biking berms are many of the reasons that so many people flock to this man-made wetland.
Perhaps the Lexus version of a public-use treatment wetland is the Green Cay Wetlands located in Boynton Beach in Palm Beach County, Florida. This man-made wetland was sculptured from a previous agricultural field where bell peppers were grown and is now one of the only undeveloped properties in this part of Palm Beach County. The Green Cay Wetlands showcases beautifully landscaped and vegetated wetland cells that are teaming with birds, a 1.5-mile long elevated boardwalk, and a 9,000 square foot nature center attracting more than 500,000 visitors each year. Since its completion in 2004, Green Cay has provided a high-quality nature experience for birdwatchers and photographers; an outdoor park for light exercising and socializing; and an environmental education and vacationing destination. It has even contributed to higher property values in the neighborhoods surrounding the wetlands. But then, who wouldn’t want to live near one of the most attractive environmental parks in Florida? The educational signs that are strategically placed along the boardwalk and in the nature center inform visitors about how the wetland filters and removes thousands of pounds of nutrients and pollutants before the water recharges the underlying aquifer.
Florida’s newest treatment wetland park facility is Gainesville’s Sweetwater Wetlands. Over 180 species of birds have already been observed at this 200-acre, state-of-the-art, water purification system and it has only been opened to the public on a daily basis since October, 2015. The sedimentation basin and three wetland cells that comprise this natural-looking water quality treatment train were designed to remove over 125,000 pounds per year of nitrogen from Gainesville’s stormwater and wastewater. The resulting clean water that emerges from the downstream end of each wetland cell then Paynes Prairie, where it hydrates and enhances the once degraded marsh system located in one of North Florida’s largest state parks.
Numerous other man-made treatment wetland/parks have been constructed in Florida and play an important role in improving the quality of water discharged to downstream receiving waters. Stormwater Treatment Area (STA) 5 and the Wellington Environmental Park are just part of the 50,000 acres of Everglades STAs that filter and remove phosphorus-laden stormwater from surrounding sugarcane fields before eventually discharging into the Everglades National Park. The Celery Fields in Sarasota County collect and treat the county’s stormwater before discharging to Phillippi Creek and ultimately the beaches and nearshore waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Since 2001, Sarasota Audubon has recorded 217 species of birds at the Celery Fields, a testament to its rich avian community. The Indian River Wetland, permitted to treat up to 4 million gallons of wastewater per day, has been designated by many as the best birding location in Indian River County. The Wakodahatchee Wetlands, located only a few miles from the renowned Green Cay Wetlands, supports wading birds that nest just beyond arm’s reach of the elevated boardwalk, providing priceless access for nature study and photography. The only visitors’ complaint about this wetland is that there are too few parking spaces to accommodate the crowds. And just completed in 2013, the 1,000-acre Lake Hancock Outfall Wetland, located in Bartow, is slated to open to the public with access through the Ft. Frasier biking trail. This treatment wetland is somewhat unique in that it is designed to filter polluted lake water from the highly eutrophic Lake Hancock before the water discharges to the Peace River (the source of drinking water for Sarasota and Charlotte County) and eventually to the Charlotte Harbor Estuary. Because the Lake Hancock wetland is so rich with birds, the Southwest Florida Water Management District who is the owner and operator of the wetland, has issued a Special Use Permit to allow for guided birding trips.
Once water is conveyed to these constructed wetlands, there are no pumps, chemicals, or other industrial processes necessary to facilitate the natural water purification processes. Water slowly filters through the heavily vegetated plant communities where the plants and millions of microbes capture and transform sediments, nutrients, and trace levels of dissolved metals and organic compounds. The removal of nutrients and other pollutants in constructed treatment wetlands is accomplished naturally by gravity, sunlight, and the photosynthesis of wetland plants, at a fraction of the cost that would occur for the same pollutant removal at a conventional wastewater treatment facility. Because of the long water residence time in these large treatment wetlands, nutrient and other pollutant concentrations are generally much lower than be achieved in even the most sophisticated conventional wastewater treatment facilities. What emerges at the downstream end of these treatment wetlands is much cleaner water that serves to hydrate underlying aquifers, rivers, streams, and coastal estuaries.
At a time when water pollution, fish kills, and Red Tide appear to be prevalent throughout many of Florida’s water bodies, the use of constructed treatment wetlands can provide a practical and effective solution to these water quality woes. The benefits are wide-reaching to water quality, wetland-dependent birds and other wildlife, the surrounding natural environments, drinking water supplies, educational and recreational opportunities, enhanced ecotourism, and the entire public-at-large. With these and other treatment wetlands as an example, perhaps more municipalities in Florida will consider converting their water-polluting wastewater discharge systems to treatment wetlands?