In Gainesville, Florida, we really enjoyed the Sweetwater Wetlands park.
It was green and gorgeous, with water plants so lush and emerald in the afternoon sun it challenged one’s perception. Diminutive herons of the most charming powder blue perched on stumps or fished amongst reeds. The feathers of a purple gallinule shone iridescently in the sun as this diminutive waterbird walked across aquatic vegetation, looking for arthropods to devour. Red winged blackbirds called plaintively to each other from their hiding places inside of tall spans of reeds. Anhinga sat on the shore or on diminutive trees, their spear like beak cocked toward the sky, their wings askance, soaking up the sun. American Bitterns (2!!!) flew overheard, a rare site for normally secretive bird, who nevertheless seemed quite comfortable here.
We were on a boardwalk, elevated above lily pads and yet more birds. I was on the hunt for a limpkin and maybe possibly a snail kite and was wondering if I had miscalculated.
Normally when I drag the family out to look at birds, its rather desolate when it comes to people. Sweetwater park was the opposite. Joggers jostled for rank while cyclists cruised by at comfortable speeds. Young couples walked hand in hand, taking in the sights and sounds and mothers pushed strollers while fathers compulsively checked wading birds.
In a word, it was crowded.
But it turns out this was by design.
For Sweetwater Wetlands Park is not a natural place, but an artificial one. The fecund growth of marsh plants and the abundance of birds (we saw 40 species!) was not some ancient ecosystem surviving despite the growth of Gainesville. It had been made.
A park ranger explained it for us.
The wastewater plant was not designed to deal with all the people that now live in Gainesville, so about six years ago, a city planner got an idea to create this park to add to the tail end of their water treatment system, as well as catch all the creek water that runs through the main watershed of the city. All this vaguely polluted water (it is cleaned of heavy metals and pathogens at the water treatment plan) is then mixed with the water that ‘cleans’ the streets of the city, the rooves, the parking lots, as well as every leaf and twig every time it rains, before it comes here.
For before this water can drain back into the Floridian Aquifer, it passes through this network of waterways. From one pond to the next it flows, sometimes in waterfalls, often in underground pipes controlled by gates. As this nutrient rich mixture (think of the nitrates!) passes through this network of ponds, bacteria that grows on the roots of the aquatic flora that was chosen and planted here when it was built consumes everything it can. This bacteria than fuels the plants and aquatic invertebrates that thrive in nutrient dense places like this, which brings in the birds, and indeed and entire ecosystem.
We saw fish, tadpoles, dragonflies galore, wood storks, ducks, sparrows, even 10-foot-long gators!
All of this, and then the water exits the system cleaner than it would have without it. The park ranger told that in fact their water is so clean that they system they implemented is being used as a model for other places to do the same thing. A elegant solution to make an environment both safer to humans and better for animals.
Plus it was great to job at.
The pathways were elevated earth, perhaps ten feet up from the surface of the water, with mowed grass on these slopes, that the gators seemed to bask in. It was a great place for looking at gators, really, because it was so steep, and besides you could see the gators. Those that left the water were still down a slope and a good ways a way. Worrisome with a toddler?
And the people we passed who had been watching the gators made sure to point them out to us, as well as any others they might have seen earlier. A kind gesture, giving us this bit of information with a smile and a nod. They wanted our kids there, to experience this place, but they were responsible members of the community as well, and didn’t want no kids eaten.
We never saw the limpkin or the snail kite, but we still had a great time. Even if I did make Raquel push the stroller the entire time.