Chapters & Centers

Cleaner Water, Extraordinary Birding

Gainesville's Sweetwater Wetlands Park attracts wildlife and improves water quality.

The loud, wailing KeEEEuur of the Limpkin greets visitors in the marshes of Gainesville’s newest birding hotspot, Sweetwater Wetlands Park. At the wetland’s edge, long-legged chicks watch hungrily as their parent dislodges an apple snail from its shell, oblivious to the gaggle of admirers with binoculars and cameras. A boardwalk and 3.5 miles of raised berms allow visitors to view 125 acres of marsh teaming with a diverse assemblage of wildlife.

Birds are the most visible, with 248 species tallied, including regular crowd pleasers like Limpkins, Everglade Snail Kites, and Purple Gallinules. Wild horses from adjacent Paynes Prairie often graze the tender grasses, and alligators — from newborn to mammoth size — populate the wetlands. Given the abundance of both reptilian “gators” and the nearby University of Florida variety, it’s no coincidence that the outline of Sweetwater Wetlands Park is shaped like an alligator head.

Since opening in 2015, Sweetwater Wetlands Park has gained widespread recognition for the many benefi ts it delivers to the community and environment. Students of all grades frequent the wetland park to study topics ranging from plants and animals to water quality and urban planning. Outdoor enthusiasts from around the state support Gainesville’s ecotourism economy as they converge at Sweetwater. Residents have been gifted an environmental park that has quickly become a regional treasure, and even community leaders and university faculty showcase Sweetwater to soughtafter job candidates to promote Gainesville’s outstanding environmental qualities.

What visitors may not realize, however, is that Sweetwater Wetlands Park is a state-of-the-art, water-quality enhancement system that cost-effectively removes over 125,000 pounds of nitrogen annually from wastewater and stormwater. In many places, the wastewater and stormwater eµ uent would be discharged into rivers or other water bodies, where the nutrients (nitrate and phosphorus) it carries can fuel algal blooms.

Instead, Gainesville Regional Utilities and the City of Gainesville Department of Public Works converted a highly degraded section of Paynes Prairie into this carefully engineered wetland, that now strips the water of nutrients before it reaches Paynes Prairie. Effluent slowly filters through Sweetwater’s three constructed cells, where microscopic organisms in the marsh convert the polluting nitrate to inert nitrogen gas through a sustainable process called denitrifi cation. Although it’s designed primarily to remove excess nitrogen, Sweetwater Wetlands also removes phosphorus, trace metals, organic compounds, and other pollutants.

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