Our visit to the Tucson Bird & Wildlife Festival this past weekend was a brief one, but we had such a good time that next year we plan on attending both days. The main draw for us was a talk by Bruce Prior, a hydrologist with Tucson Water. He is our point person for projects at the Wetlands and his talk was enticingly titled “Behind the Scenes at Sweetwater Wetlands.” How could we resist?
Bruce started off by surveying the attendees, “Show of hands how many people have been to the Wetlands?” Surprisingly only four of us raised our hands. Bruce wasn’t shocked, he called the Wetlands Tucson’s best kept secret. If people only knew what they were missing!
The complex of recharge basins, ponds, and waterworks were built to satisfy a fine levied against Tucson Water by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. Back in the mid-1990s the utility was cited for failing to meet water testing requirements and assessed a $400,000 penalty. Instead of paying the fine ADEQ approved an alternate plan allowing Tucson Water to use that money to build a public facility provided it met three requirements: created a 17.5 acre wetland habitat (similar to what once existed along the Santa Cruz River), provided educational opportunities, and filtered reclaimed water.
I’ve heard that Tucson Water spent quite a bit more than required during construction of the Wetlands. In 1997 600 shrubs and trees were planted and the Wetlands officially opened in 1998. Bruce showed photos from 1998 and then contrasted those with current shots. The transformation from bare dirt to a lush oasis was amazing.
Bruce was careful to explain that the only life forms brought in were the plants – all the wildlife came of its own accord. After all in a desert, where there’s water, there will be wildlife. Except in the case of the turtles, those are thought to have been dropped off by thoughtless pet owners.
While we love the Wetlands for the beauty of its riparian habitat and the wildlife it attracts, the Wetlands are much more than a pretty place. It also processes one of Tucson’s water sources. Bruce explained that decades ago all of Tucson’s sewage was treated and the effluent was discharged into the Santa Cruz River. As Tucson grew and our aquifer shrank officials began looking for new water sources.
The $4 billion Central Arizona Project canal was one option for potable water but closer to home officials realized that effluent could be re-used. Since that time effluent is no longer considered wastewater, it is now called reclaimed water which is used for irrigation (golf courses, parks, and even some school playgrounds).
Tucson Water owns a filtration plant that puts the finishing touches on treated effluent. That plant has a 10 million gallon/day capacity. Just across the street, the Sweetwater Wetlands complex has a 20mg/d filtration capacity. Bruce mentioned that three more recharge basins will be completed soon. That addition will increase total capacity to just under 40 mg/d. For perspective, an average 18 hole golf course uses 1.5 mg/d during the summer months. That’s a lot of water!
Bruce wrapped up his talk by sharing a couple exciting new developments at the Wetlands. There will soon be an overflow parking lot north of the entrance, a welcomed improvement as the current lot fills up quickly. Also, there is a new access point on the west side of the Wetlands. As part of the ongoing expansion of the Santa Cruz River Park Trail the path by the Wetlands has been widened and paved; and benches and a bike rack will soon be installed by that entrance. From inside the Wetlands this provides easy access to the riverbank which offers views of an entirely different habitat.
So what are you waiting for? Come on out and explore the Wetlands!