Wetlands Reborn

A water reclamation plant expansion leads to creation of a wildlife park that gains prominent mention as a visitor destination in Florida’s Panhandle.
Wetlands Reborn
Views from around Conservation Park include an outdoor amphitheater, boardwalks and an open pavilion.

When Panama City Beach officials in 1998 considered ways to divert 7 mgd of effluent from a northwest Florida estuary known as West Bay, they had no idea their solution would end up 15 years later as a recommended visitors’ destination by the New York Times.

But a February 2013 edition highlighted the new outfall location — a 2,900-acre wetland and nature park named Conservation Park — in its Travel Guide section listing top spots to visit in the area, a tourist magnet in the state’s Panhandle.

Close collaboration

“Our goal didn’t include becoming a visitors’ destination,” says Albert Shortt, city engineer and utility director. “We had to develop a 10-year plan to expand the wastewater treatment plant to accommodate population growth and find a way to use the reclaimed water for a beneficial use.”

A collaboration between the city and the Florida Departments of Environmental Protection, Fish & Wildlife, and the U.S. Corp of Engineers produced a multi-phased plan to upgrade the advanced treatment plant and create a way to rehydrate existing wetlands that had their water balance altered by many years of tree farming.

The first goal was achieved with a plant upgrade that increased capacity by 4 mgd. The second was met by using six vertical turbine pumps to transport the effluent 4.5 miles though a 36-inch pipe, to be distributed through an ecosystem that had been in decline. That’s where the notable part of the Times recommendation begins: In about 2004, Panama City Beach mayor Gayle Oberst envisioned a nature park integrated with the rehydrated wetlands.

Flow distribution

Effluent is received at the nature park at a manifold station in a 4,400-square-foot building disguised as a visitor pavilion, with restrooms, benches and bicycle racks. Wall displays in a 20- by 20-foot cypress-framed porch on the building describe the history and features of the park. The displays include maps of more than 24 miles of hiking and biking trails and pictures of the hidden manifold that makes rehydration possible.

“Because we are still in a start-up mode, plant operators do a lot of monitoring at the wetlands and take a lot of water samples to check for nitrogen, phosphorus, dissolved oxygen, pH and other parameters,” says Shortt. An engineering firm performs biological sampling and monitoring quarterly and reports annually how the ecosystem is responding.

Ranging from 16- to 30-inch diameters, the four legs of the manifold system direct water to 14 strategically placed discharge structures that hydrate areas of the park on a rotating basis. Flow is regulated by plant operators who control the pumps at the plant and the valves at the manifold. From the manifold, flow through the distribution system is by gravity. Discharge is programmed according to the growing season of newly planted native species, like longleaf pine and hardwood trees, planted to improve the habitat and restore the wetlands.

Stroll or pedal

Eight boardwalks totaling more than a mile allow park visitors to view the wildlife and wetland vegetation in otherwise inaccessible areas. Unobtrusive wayfinding signs on each of 12 hiking and biking trails complement information kiosks that describe the native plants, flowers and trees. Rest areas, picnic areas and an outdoor amphitheater-type classroom are part of the park, which officially opened in fall 2012.

Nearly 10 miles of paved trails lead to the park from three trailheads that are part of a larger trail system planned to join those of neighboring communities. A trailhead at the treatment plant includes a parking lot and signage of the entire system, called Gayle’s Trails.
“Panama City Beach’s Conservation Park provides a solution to a problem and is a great benefit to the community and the Northwest Florida ecosystem,” says Shortt. “And there is no doubt that the New York Times article was an unexpected bonus to increase visitor awareness of the beneficial use of reclaimed water.”


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