The sound of water was a relaxing escape from urban life, said Juan Morales as he cast his fishing line into the pond at Gilbert’s Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch.
“Whatever’s in here, I’m trying to catch,” he said. “Then I’ll throw it back in.”
His fiancee, Taryn Smith, stood at his side, watching ducks swim underneath the pier.
The couple, who live less than a mile from the preserve, said they were surprised recently to find the wetlands park in the center of town.
They were more surprised to learn the fishing pond was filled with what once had been sewage, treated and then pumped into wetland ponds in the same park, where it seeped into an underground aquifer. Layers of dirt and clay filtered the water, making it safe to be pumped out and into the fishing pond to make a home for trout, bass, catfish and tilapia.
While visitors can’t see the natural recycling process going on at the park, they can witness the beauty of the wetlands habitat. On average, 10,000 people visit the park monthly, some from as far away as Canada. Many come to catch a glimpse of some of the 200-plus species of birds sighted at the park.
Because of the park’s popularity, Gilbert is planning its third riparian preserve, and Chandler its first. Apache Junction and Queen Creek are studying similar riparian preserves as part of their conservation plans.
Creating an oasis in the desert isn’t as out of place as some observers might think.
“This Valley was a huge riparian area when it was first settled,” said Scott Anderson, director and founder of the Gilbert riparian preserve. “When the Salt River was flowing and the Gila River was flowing, this Valley was pretty lush — a lot of cottonwood trees, willows, sycamores.”
A NATURAL HABITAT
At Gilbert’s Water Ranch, the winding trails and natural desert plants attract a variety of wildlife, including cottontail rabbits, turtles, coyotes, frogs and insects. Some researchers and visitors have even said they spotted a mountain lion there — but there’s no hard evidence of its presence.
At times, Anderson and the park’s ranger have battled to balance the habitat with urban life: They’ve had to ask visitors to stop harassing burrowing owls, and volunteers continue to work on a spay-and-neuter program for feral cats.
The park and a second riparian preserve in Gilbert have been named national “Important Bird Areas” by the Audubon Society, thanks to shore birds such as the long-billed dowitcher that migrate there from as far away as Alaska.
The preserve also attracts crowds for night sky viewings at its new observatory. Hikes and educational programs also are scheduled at the park, including the upcoming Feathered Friends Festival on Saturday.
A CONSERVATION PLAN
The park allows the town to preserve drinking water by reusing wastewater. The way it works, once wastewater leaves a home it goes to treatment plants, where it is treated to a point where it is safe for irrigation= uses, but not for consumption.
During summer, much of the treated water is used immediately — piped from the treatment plant to golf courses and parks. Any excess, especially in winter, is pumped through bright purple pipes into the ponds at the preserve. There, it is filtered by the soil and becomes even cleaner as it seeps 150 feet underground into the upper aquifer.
The water in that upper aquifer is still not drinking water quality, but is safe for human use and can be pumped back up when needed. Gilbert, for instance, pumps some back to the surface for residential lakes. Much of it is “banked” by municipalities for future use — and decades later could even become drinking water once it reaches the 1,000-foot middle aquifer underground.
“It’s beneficial and helping us extend our drinking water into the future, because we’re not wasting it on turf,” Gilbert’s wastewater superintendent Mark Horn said. “It’s benefiting the wildlife in terms of habitat, and it’s providing an educational component for children, passive recreation for the public. And the real benefit is the fact we’re recharging and replenishing the groundwater aquifer.”
A WETLANDS TREND
Gilbert opened its first wetlands park, the Riparian Preserve at Neely Ranch, in 1990. The town planted lush native landscaping that attracted exotic and native birds in and around the ponds created with treated wastewater.
Neely Ranch is fenced from the public because pond water is not treated to a high enough standard to be safe for people as it seeps underground. Despite that, the park caught the eye of bird-watchers who soon began to seek out unusual birds from outside the fence.
So in 1999, when Gilbert opened its second preserve at Water Ranch, the town included a lake using the water in the upper aquifer, stocked it with fish, and opened the park to the public.
Earlier this year, Gilbert began recycling water at its third riparian preserve, which is not yet named. By 2012, that 113-acre facility will be open to the public.
Chandler’s first riparian preserve, the Chandler Heights Recharge Project, is under construction and expected to open by the end of this year. It also includes wetland ponds for reclaiming water, as well as the Veterans Oasis Park.
“Instead of just fencing it off and making it a place where our wastewater percolated back into the ground, we open it up and say, ‘Hey, this is a beautiful place the public can use also,’” Chandler spokesman Jim Phipps said.
Queen Creek has hired a consultant to study whether a riparian preserve like Gilbert’s would be the best way to recycle used water.
In Apache Junction, water officials are proposing to build a riparian preserve that recharges treated water by sending it back underground like Gilbert’s preserve, if the city can purchase land adjacent to its wastewater treatment plant at Ironwood Drive south of Baseline Road.
Recycling used water can save more than a third of water consumed by residents, said Ed Grabek, district manager for the Superstition Mountains Community Facilities in Apache Junction.
He said water in a proposed riparian preserve would be banked and not used for lakes or irrigation, and the preserve also would create a buffer between homes and the treatment plant expected to grow its capacity from 2 million gallons a day to 16 million.
“We would love it,” Grabek said. “People will see this beautiful riparian area. It will have trails in it.”
Feathered Friends Festival
What: Forty booths with wildlife exhibitors and educational and craft activities.
Where: Gilbert’s Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch, 2757 E. Guadalupe Road.
When: 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.
For more information on Gilbert’s riparian preserves, visit www.riparianinstitute.org.