Education on the Wing: A Virginia Treatment Plant Provides a Haven for Birds

A bird sanctuary at a Virginia clean-water plant helps a utility deliver a critical message about the value of clean water.

Education on the Wing: A Virginia Treatment Plant Provides a Haven for Birds

Killdeers fly over one of the five lagoons that make up the wildlife area.

As a centerpiece for a clean-water treatment plant’s community outreach, it’s hard to beat the 24-acre bird-watcher’s paradise created by five lagoons at the Roanoke (Virginia) Water Pollution Control Plant.

“We get bird-watchers from all over the country,” says Scott Shirley, director of wastewater operations for Western Virginia Water Authority, which owns the 55 mgd tertiary treatment facility. The plant is home to many local species and is a stopping point for thousands of migrating birds, especially shorebirds and ducks.

More than 60 percent of bird species documented in Virginia have been seen at the site. Birds rarely seen in the area show up too, such as the eared grebe. More than 240 species have been documented. Birders have told Shirley that the plant’s 32-million-gallon concrete equalization basin draws shorebirds including killdeer because its brown shading makes it look like sand.

Appealing views

Birders and nature lovers can view the habitat either from the ground or from three wooden platforms, each about 15-foot square and fitted with benches. One platform has a ramp and meets the requirements for ADA access. “We built the original platforms, but a Boy Scout built the third one as part of a merit badge to earn the rank of Eagle Scout,” Shirley says.

That platform overlooks the equalization basin and was built near a public Greenway Trail that crosses the plant property, for which the utility provided an easement. Visitors who park nearby can walk a short distance and access the platform without entering the facility.

Hard-packed gravel trails for walking or biking around the lagoons provide access to observation points from three paved parking areas. Visitors can obtain permanent or temporary no-cost passes to enter through a security gate equipped with a call box.  

The lagoon area is an integral part of the authority’s robust outreach program led by Sarah Baumgardner, public relations manager. “We strive to educate students and citizens about what happens after they put stuff down the drain and what is done at the water pollution control plant,” Baumgardner says.

Educational tours

Tours and presentations emphasize the birding opportunities and the uniqueness of the habitat. The river, the grasslands, a large area of rocky shores, a stand of hardwoods, and the equalization basin all attract different species. “The birds help us deliver the message that clean treatment supports life,” Baumgardner says.

Recognition of the plant as an official birding location began when the Roanoke Valley Bird Club began conducting bird counts there during each Christmas season. In the mid-1970s, one member noted a significant increase in local and migratory birds at the site. Except during times of construction when the lagoons are closed to the public, the numbers of birders and other visitors have increased.

The facility staff regularly coordinates with the bird club to arrange for experienced guides to conduct tours. Shirley says the staff enjoys the recognition the site receives for its support of the birding activities. Staff members flag off killdeer nesting areas each year to protect them from mowing. “Our site visitors have noted this commitment,” Shirley says.    

“We have invested a substantial amount of time and resources into developing greater public awareness and education about the plant. The birding program is very complementary to these efforts in that it helps the public understand the connection between wastewater treatment and supporting a healthy environment.”


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