Providing Sanctuary: Operators Convert Discharge Ponds to Wildlife Habitat

Operators embellish an established pond habitat and spruce up the plant grounds to enhance the visitor experience.
Providing Sanctuary: Operators Convert Discharge Ponds to Wildlife Habitat
A view of native plants and birds that are typical of wildlife ponds Snoopy, Lucy and Bones.

Some people in Ventura thought the three wastewater discharge ponds near the city’s wastewater treatment plant might go away in 2009 when the State of California tightened discharge standards for its 14 mgd (design) activated sludge water reclamation plant.

But creative planning and a determination to maintain the ponds for the public’s enjoyment transformed the nearly 40-acre pond site into a wildlife habitat that provides recreational opportunities for bird-watchers and hikers.

Changing role

Developed by the city as a wildlife habitat enjoyed by citizens and visitors to the plant, the ponds originally served as an effluent discharge point before final discharge into an estuary formed by the Santa Clara River. With residence time of more than four days, flow through the ponds further reduced residual chlorine levels. A plant upgrade in 2009 modified dechlorination and relocated the discharge point to after the ponds.

“The ponds are no longer part of our process,” says John Willis, wastewater plant supervisor. “But they still draw a lot of bird-watchers and visitors.” Named Snoopy, Lucy and Bones, the ponds simulate coastal dunes surrounded by willow, arroyo willow and cottonwood trees.

Leafy buckwheat, purple needle and other plants and reeds provide varied habitat to support native and migratory birds, such as marsh wren, warblers, grebes, ducks, swallows and peregrine falcons. Willis says bird-watchers rate the ponds among the best viewing areas in the region. A series of graveled pathways meander around the ponds. Three benches provide resting and viewing locations.

Decorative plantings

To further beautify the area near the plant, operators built a nearly 1,000-foot-long retaining wall of architectural stone 18 inches high to contain topsoil and the shrubs and trees they had planted along the front of the flow equalization basin. “Before we built the wall, the soil and shrubs would slide down to the sidewalk during a rainstorm,” says Eric Miller, lead operator.  “We also planted trees, shrubs and ground cover in front of the new primary pump building.”

The operators also did more than 500 plantings of ornamental grasses such as blue fescue and native flowers like freeway daisies and California native roses, along with sedges and mugwort. Operators did the landscaping, which included placing a few boulders, when time allowed and when the facility could spare the money. The entire project lasted about a year.

“We didn’t have a budget but wanted the plant to look better for visitors,” says Willis. “We conduct a lot of tours each year for high school kids, college students and the general public.”

Protecting the waters

Before discharge into the Santa Clara River Estuary, more than 2.5 mgd of treated water is diverted for beneficial reuse as landscape irrigation by two nearby residential neighborhoods and a golf course. The Pacific Ocean is about 2,000 feet from the discharge point.

The estuary is home to steelhead trout and tidewater goby, both federally protected species. The estuary and the discharge ponds provide critical habitat for migratory and resident waterfowl and shore birds including western and least sandpiper, America avocet, great blue heron, snowy egret, mallards, cinnamon teal, gadwalls, and northern shoveler. The threatened snowy plover has been seen. Mammals such as hares, opossums, raccoons, skunks, foxes, coyotes and deer use the habitat, along with gophers, squirrels, moles and bats.

Water depth in the estuary and its surrounding marshes and riparian areas varies with the seasons and the occurrence of storms. Independent studies done for the city confirm that the estuary is a primarily freshwater water body that supports aquatic habitat.  

Willis says the operators are proud of all the work they have done to improve the appearance of the plant, but they are also proud of the quality of their effluent: “Clean water from our facility helps to provide critical wildlife and fish habitat.”



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