How One Midwest Treatment Plant Gives Back to Mother Nature

A constructed grassland on a water plant site that was once a farm is now home to abundant native plants and a rich variety of wildlife.
How One Midwest Treatment Plant Gives Back to Mother Nature
A covey of seven quail approaches a feeder in the grassland that was created at the Phillips Street Water Treatment Plant.

Creating a field of native grasses, wildflowers and trees to attract nesting birds and other wildlife has been rewarding for operators of Indiana American Water’s Phillips Street Water Treatment Plant near Kokomo, Indiana.

Since 2007, when the 2 mgd treatment plant was built on the site of a former dairy farm, species including quail, red-winged blackbirds, warblers, grasshopper sparrows, killdeer and other birds have established nests and thrive on the constructed grassland habitat. Bright-colored wildflowers such as the yellow snakeroot attract pollinating honeybees and butterflies. Plenty of grasshoppers, crickets and other insects provide food for the birds.

The treatment plant, its backwash pond and residuals lagoon occupy 9 acres of the 67-acre site, nearly 2 miles from town. The facility’s wellfields are scattered over the remaining 56 acres of the once dormant farmland, which is now a grassland.

“We could have farmed it out or made it into one big field of grass that would require mowing and time to maintain,” says Ryan Smith, operations superintendent. “But that would have been labor- and cost-intensive.”

Instead, Smith led a team of workers who in two days planted native warm-season grasses, including big bluestem, sideoats grama, prairie dropseed and switchgrass. Wildflowers such as purple-cone flower, black-eyed Susan, prairie dock and wild bergamot were mixed in to provide balance over the entire 56 acres.

Because only a couple of growing seasons had passed since the last harvest on the farmland, no new tilling was required. Mowing the wellfield to reduce the weeds was the only soil preparation before planting.

Smith’s team used an 8-foot-wide grass drill with double-disc furrow openers to ensure that the seeds were inserted about an inch below the surface. The heavier wildflower seeds were mixed with the light and fluffy grass seed to provide even distribution of about 6 pounds per acre.

Since the seeds grow down in the first year to establish their roots and then they grow upward slowly, it took patience to get the pay-off. “It took about three years for our grasses and flowers to take effect and for the field to give good cover,” says Smith. Other than a rare and very selective controlled burn to remove weeds, no maintenance is required. Normal rainfall provides ample watering.

After the grassland root system was well established, Smith’s team collaborated with the local chapter of the Hoosier Bobwhite Quail Forever to improve the habitat by planting more than 400 seedlings of deciduous trees, shrubs and pines. Nearly 15 species of greenery now form a fence line and create additional food and cover for game and non-game wildlife.

Several coveys of quail were introduced to the grassland to join other naturally occurring ground-nesting birds and critters. Predators such as hawks, raccoons and fox also took up residence and thrive in the habitat. “After of couple of hatchings over two or three years, we take a dozen or so new quail out there to help build up the number of birds,” Smith says.

Recovery of the quail has been slow but positive, says Smith, a member of the local Quail Forever chapter. Operators and maintenance staff who regularly visit the unmanned facility sometimes see quail near the plant filling their gizzards with gravel. “We don’t normally see them flying around, and we’re not going to hunt them, but they are there,” says Smith.

Smith was operations supervisor of the Phillips Street Plant during construction, but has since moved on to become operations superintendent of Indiana American Water’s 10 mgd Noblesville Treatment Plant. But he still stops by the Phillips Street Plant occasionally to make sure the grassland remains healthy. He observes, “It was a good way to give back to Mother Nature and the right thing to do.”


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