Treatment Plant Ponds Become A Haven For Wildlife And A Magnet For Visitors

Henderson’s treatment plant ponds provide superb bird watching and wildlife viewing in the middle of southern Nevada’s desert country.
Treatment Plant Ponds Become A Haven For Wildlife And A Magnet For Visitors
The bird viewing preserve ponds (irregular-shaped) are shown in the foreground. The water reclamation facility is at the upper left. The rectangular lagoons in upper right are no longer in service.

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The two lagoons that made up the Henderson Wastewater Treatment Plant during the 1980s were merely well-manicured evaporative and percolating ponds serving a Nevada community of about 25,000.

Today those ponds are part of a nine-pond outfall system at a modern 32 mgd activated sludge facility that treats wastewater for more than 275,000 residents and entertains bird watchers and other outdoor enthusiasts from all over the world.

“No one would have believed it would become so popular,” says Adrian Edwards, manager of water and wastewater operations. Covering more than 100 acres and located about 20 minutes southeast of Las Vegas, the ponds attract nearly 290 species of migratory and local birds, along with coyotes, raccoons, opossums, rabbits, snakes and other wildlife. More than 10,000 people visit the ponds each year.

Convenient trails

Formally known as the Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve, the ponds attract birds such as Abert’s towhee, Gambel’s quail, crissal thrasher, greater roadrunner and black-tailed gnatcatcher. More than 7 miles of natural, graveled and asphalt trails provide visitor access. A 20-foot-tall observation tower, six duck blinds and a 40-foot-long, 8-foot-wide dock provide viewing spots.

The site includes more than 10 rest areas with benches. For those who choose not to travel by foot, a custom-made golf cart called the “Bird Mobile” hauls six visitors at a time on guided tours. A map of the world that hangs on a wall in a nearby welcome center has pins that identify visitors’ homelands.

“It wasn’t always like this,” says Edwards. Years ago, the original two ponds created one of the largest bodies of water in the southern Nevada desert. Gradually, natural growth of plants and trees formed a marsh habitat that attracted native and migratory birds, including 12 duck species, geese, tundra swans, raptors, flycatchers, swallows, sparrows, warblers, pied-billed and eared grebes, black-necked stilt, American avocet, common moorhen, black and Say’s phoebes, and black-chinned and Anna’s hummingbirds.

Making it work

Local birders took notice, and soon the ponds became a prime birding site. But mixing plant operations with the needs of the birds was not always easy. “There is a lot of water in the ponds, and moving it around is a slow and steady process,” says Edwards. “It has taken great communication between plant and parks operations to make the program work.”

In 1994, when the new treatment facility was being built, the Red Rock Audubon Society and others petitioned the city to enhance the ponds as bird and wildlife habitat. The treatment plant staff changed some maintenance procedures, such as habitat landscape management and pond water-level targets. Trees and plants that improved bird habitat were added.

“Today we treat the water and fill the ponds, then move the water around in the ponds to regulate the flow,” says Lloyd Reardon, unit supervisor of wastewater operations. “We maintain the valves and piping, but the rest is handled by the Public Works, Parks and Recreation Department.”

Chuck Ashby, city outdoor recreation supervisor who manages the preserve, says, “The plant operators do a great job. They do their best to accommodate our requests for lower water levels during nesting season and provide higher levels in the fall when the ducks are around.”

Formal instruction

A security fence separates the treatment facility from the preserve, but visitors often tour the plant to understand the source of the large volume of water, not a common sight in the desert. “We also train the Public Works, Parks and Recreation staff so they can explain where all that water is coming from,” says Edwards.

Visitors can take classes conducted by staff about birding and the preserve’s plants and wildlife. Popular offerings include a night birding class and Boy Scout and Girl Scout merit badge courses. “In the last quarter alone, we held 20 classes,” Ashby says.

Edwards observes, “It has been an amazing transition. The quality of the water we supply to the preserve today compared to what we put out in the late 1970s is remarkable. I could never have seen it getting this good.”

And the setting provides quite a contrast to its surroundings: “You can hear the slots ringing in the casinos of Las Vegas and then drive for 20 minutes and hear the birds chirping in the wild.”  


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