By MICHELA WILSON
As you cross the bridge from the parking lot into Sweetwater Wetlands, the feeling of being in a desert quickly disappears. Ponds, surrounded by cattails, are alive with ducks, dragonflies and frogs. You may see a falcon or a heron fly overhead, or a family of bobcats wandering down the path.
This unusual desert ecosystem is only five miles north of downtown, tucked between I-10 and the Santa Cruz River. Open to the public seven days a week, Sweetwater Wetlands is a water treatment facility, outdoor classroom and birdwatcher’s paradise.
Thirty years ago, Tucson Water was facing the prospect of losing millions of dollars for not reporting water quality according to protocol. Tucson Water hydrologist Joaquim Delgado said some people within the utility came up with the idea for the wetlands as a creative alternative. He called the project a poster child for public involvement, and credits the organic shape to public input.
“Usually engineers design rectangular- shaped stuff. From the start, there was tremendous public input. Fifth-graders planted the trees,” Delgado said. “Believe me, we hear about it when anyone thinks we aren’t taking care of things.”
Originally the wetlands were important to cleaning the incoming water from the Roger Road Reclamation Facility, but now that facility has closed and water coming in from the new Agua Nueva Treatment Facility is much cleaner. Delgado said the wetlands’ function as a water filtration system is now obsolete, but the park is here to stay. The water from the wetlands still makes its way back into the ground via the recharge basins, before being pumped out to be used as recycled water for parks, golf courses and schools.
For Delgado, the opportunity for kids to come out and learn about water is his favorite aspect of the wetlands. The program became so big it was outsourced to Project WET, where they teach most of Tucson’s third-graders about the water cycle, how important groundwater is, and the impact each of us has in watershed sustainability.
The latest example of community involvement was earlier this summer when volunteers and nonprofits came together to create the Sweetwater Wetlands Monarch Butterfly Waystation and Hummingbird Habitat.
According to the Sweetwater Wetlands facebook page, the Sonoran Desert Museum donated over 70 species of plants and volunteers at the Tucson Audubon Society showed up to plant them. Tucson Water will install informational signs.
Free weekly bird walks are led by Luke Safford, Tucson Audubon volunteer and field trip coordinator. Safford says well over 1,000 people came out to their Wednesday morning walks last year.
“People from Tucson, the U.S., and all over the world come to Sweetwater to look for birds,” Safford said. “What’s so great about it is it’s a very close location where you can easily see lots of things in nature, whether it’s birds or frogs or turtles or raccoons.”
Safford says one of the best things about Sweetwater is that there are different birds to see throughout the year.
Regardless of the season, earlier in the day is when there is the most activity and variety of birds and animals. Another prime time is an hour before dusk, especially in the winter, when Safford says hundreds of blackbirds noisily come and roost.
According to a report by the University of Arizona, fewer than 20 species of birds were documented in the area prior to the creation of the wetlands. As of August 2017, tucsonaudubon.org reported 308 bird species, including the trumpeter swan and golden eagle.
Indeed, a trip to Sweetwater likely will include spotting more than one person with binoculars glued to their face, intently looking up into a tree or out onto the water.
Lisa Partin, who considers herself an amateur birder, has been visiting the wetlands a couple times a month for the last five or six years.
“It’s like a little oasis in the desert,” Partin said. “You can go on the other side of the Santa Cruz and never see what you see here. I live a mile from here and I’ll never see the species found here.”