More Than 170 Species of Bird Visit This Wastewater Plant

Ponds and man-made wetlands at an Indian River County Utilities treatment plant provide a major attraction for birders and wildlife watchers.
More Than 170 Species of Bird Visit This Wastewater Plant
The boardwalk spans one-half mile and includes a covered pavilion.

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Of four wastewater treatment facilities operated by Indian River County Utilities, the 6 mgd (design) West Regional Wastewater Facility is the most popular with the public. Its 14 shallow- and deep-water ponds and 180 acres of man-made wetlands attract all kinds of wild creatures.

“People from all over come to the plant to watch the birds and enjoy the wildlife,” says Terry Southard, operations manager for all water and wastewater treatment facilities owned by the utility, based in Vero Beach, Florida. “The local Audubon Society members are particularly involved.”

Easy access

Migratory birds frequent the property, as do numerous Florida shore and coastal birds. Those include roseate spoonbills, whistling ducks, sandhill cranes, snowy egrets, cormorants, blue herons, snail kites, bitterns and grebes, which nest on or inhabit the site seasonally. Bald eagles and osprey can often be spotted. More than 170 species have been identified by eBird (www.eBird.org), an interactive online checklist program developed by the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society.

Alligators are not uncommon at the site, especially during the nesting season of February through April. “One of our operators saw a nine-footer while mowing the grass along the side of the berm,” says Rich Meckes, superintendent of the wastewater facilities. Bobcats, feral hogs, raccoons, rabbits, and other mammals also call the wetlands home.

From a parking area inside the front gate where a kiosk provides information about the plant and wetlands, visitors can walk or bicycle on a gravel-topped, 8-foot-wide berm that defines the ponds. A 4-foot-wide wooden boardwalk with handrails provides access to parts of the marsh. A covered pavilion at the midpoint of the half-mile boardwalk overlooks the greater wetlands. An observation deck overlooks one of the larger ponds, which range from 3.5 acres to nearly 20 acres. Appropriate signs are posted throughout the area.

Treatment first

One large deep-water pond contains largemouth bass and is a favorite for fishermen. “They are allowed to fish only on a catch and release basis, though,” Southard says. No motorized vehicles are allowed on the berm, but horses are allowed and are more popular during winter.

Water entering the wetlands is highly treated at the 2.5 mgd (average) advanced treatment plant. Effluent travels by gravity through the wetlands for further natural treatment. Residence time is 27 days to 163 days, depending on inflows to the plant. Samples for dissolved oxygen, pH and conductivity are regularly taken at each of 32 water control structures. Wetland effluent is used primarily for golf course watering. Excess flow is diverted to a channel that discharges into a canal system that leads to the Indian River Lagoon.

It is important to Southard to accommodate the wishes of the Audubon Society and other visitors. For example, he has honored a request not to mow an area of berm before the nesting season of a particular bird species and not to interrupt photography sessions with maintenance activity. “But first and foremost, we are a treatment facility,” Southard says. “Our priority is the treatment of the water and lowering the nutrients before it flows to the lagoon.”

Neighborly staff

Southard and his staff consider it important for the plant to be a good neighbor to the residential area developed on land next door after the plant was built in 1988: “We’ve spent a lot of money planting oak trees and other vegetation to create a buffer between us and the development, and it has paid off. Something we’ve learned over the years is that being open with the community and inviting them inside the fence to see and explain what we’re doing really works. It stops any potential issue before it starts.”

The West Wetland is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail, which stretches for 2,000 miles and contains more than 500 locations of protected bird habitats. “We are really proud of all our facilities, but we are especially proud of our West Facility,” Southard says. “It has always been a real showplace for the public.”



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