Reclaiming Wastewater Naturally

This is one of the drainage streams at Sweetwater Wetlands, a constructed water reclamation wetland in Tucson, Arizona. It looks nothing like a high-tech facility yet performs as well or better.

We were doing a little bird photography in Madera Canyon, east of the city of Green Valley, Arizona. A couple sat down beside me and we began to chat about the places they had been to. They mentioned Sweetwater Wetlands in Tucson. Since Tucson was our base for the week, I was immediately interested, as wetlands almost always provide excellent birding and photography.

We visited the wetlands the very next day, getting there around 11:00 a.m. In two hours, we had logged 30 different species, including two firsts, a black-tailed gnatcatcher and an orange-crowned warbler. Other visitors showed us photos of a resident bobcat capturing a coot. This place attracts not only wildlife, but also thousands of visitors each year.

I was curious about this wetland and read all the educational signs and then read a little more on line. It was constructed in 1997 as a negotiated settlement of a lawsuit filed by Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. They alleged that Tucson was in violation of state drinking water monitoring and reporting requirements. The city committed to design and construct an experimental wetland/recharge facility, with associated wildlife habitat and educational amenities. Yup. This was going to be a sewage treatment plant, but not your average, boring, single purpose plant. And it was going to cost far less than a typical high-tech facility. Half a dozen state and federal agencies and multiple citizen groups banded together to design a project with benefits far beyond water treatment.

This isn’t our first experience with wetlands constructed for water treatment. Two of our favorite places to visit in southern Florida are also wastewater treatment wetlands. Green Cay Wetland covers 100 acres of former farmland that the previous owners sold for one third appraised value with the caveat that the land become a wetland. Wakodahatchee Wetland sits on 50 acres of formerly unused utility land. Both attract tens of thousands of visitors annually and support an incredible amount of wildlife, and not just birds.

A constructed wetland might be called an artificial wetland, but that is only in the sense that it is built by humans and not by nature. Otherwise, they can be identical in form and function. In one aspect, a constructed wetland is even better: it will have a dependable supply of water, improving management and wildlife opportunities. The constructed wetland has one specific purpose though: to clean effluent water before it is returned to the system. Effluent water may be sewage, stormwater, industrial or agricultural runoff, animal wastes and even landfill leachates.

Any treatment system starts with a settling pond where solids are removed. In a constructed wetland, the water then moves through a series of wetlands—marshes full of water-loving plants such as cattails, reeds and sedges. These plants take up some of the available compounds. The plants also provide a home for microbes and bacteria which breakdown the complex waste compounds into simple combinations that can then be used as food by the plants, algae, microbes and plankton, thus removing them from the water. While still not drinkable, the water is then available for many non-consumptive uses such as watering golf courses. It needs one more step of purification to be potable.

Constructed wetlands can be dreary affairs, square or rectangular ponds with monoculture vegetation, accomplishing a single purpose. They can also be, with appropriate planning and design, vibrant wildlife habitats that are attractive to humans.  I have seen plenty of the former, but enjoy the benefits of the latter. To see vibrant wildlife and visitor friendly water-reclamation wetlands in Idaho communities rather than utilitarian ones, only requires that citizens get involved with local communities and introduce and support such projects.



If you are interested in this topic, check out the EPA publication 843-B-00-003, Guiding Principles for Constructed Treatment Wetlands. Also, Constructed Wetlands: Using Human Ingenuity, Natural Processes to Treat Water, Build Habitat. March, 1997, by Joe Gelt is an informative read. Find it on the Web at:

Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho