“It’s magic to see what happens when you add water to the landscape,” said Jacqui Sulek, chapter conservation manager for Audubon Florida.
A visit to the Lake City Wetlands is magical to many who see it for the first time. Treated wastewater has helped transform the site of a 120-acre former “spray field” into the birding hot-spot and functioning wetland it is today.
Cody Pridgeon, City of Lake City wastewater director, explained the City had utilized the spray field to dispose of its treated wastewater -- it was dispersed onto a large grassy area, eventually filtering down into the groundwater within the Ichetucknee Springshed, directly connected to the Ichetucknee River and springs.
“Before this site became a wetland, you would not have recognized it,” said Pridgeon. “It had a few different lives, being used to cut hay in the 80s and eventually becoming a spray field. Now, we enjoy showing people the site and seeing the amazement on their faces when they see all the plants and wildlife.”
To help reduce nitrogen levels in the nearby springs, in 2016, the Suwannee River Water Management District (District) worked with community and state partners to convert the spray field into a “treatment wetland.” The processed water is pumped into a man-made wetland filled with native plants. The plants provide a natural filtration process that occurs before water reaches the aquifer, better cleaning the water. The result: improved water quality and quantity for the aquifer and the local springs it feeds.
Patrick Webster, chief professional engineer for the District’s Office of Agriculture and Environment Projects, said the District tries to focus on “priority springs,” which are those with established thresholds for water flow identified through the District’s minimum flows and minimum water levels, or MFLs. MFLs aim to help ensure water availability for the present and future, and to prevent significant harm to the area’s natural resources. After a science-based process, the priority list of MFL waterbodies is published annually and submitted to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for review and approval.
“The ground and surface water basins are all connected in this area,” Webster said. “With the help of the wetland project, more water recharge and cleaner water is making its way into the surrounding springs.”
Webster explained that as water travels through each of the nine wetland cells, it is naturally polished, or cleaned, and then helps to recharge the aquifer below.
Looking out onto the wetlands, it is hard not to notice the natural beauty -- the sounds of birds and flowing water can be heard as visitors look out onto scenes of layered plantlife. Pickerelweed, Fire Flag, Knotted Spikerush, Lance Leaf Arrowhead and Softstem Bulrush were carefully chosen for their complementary roles and fit for this Florida ecosystem.
“This project is incredibly efficient,” said Charlie Keith, Suwannee River Water Management District board member and Lake City resident. “Nature is most certainly at work. The primary focus is the quality and quantity of water, and this system is excelling at that. It is something to behold and is a win-win for nature and the community.”
Lake City is already seeing the results. The project is benefitting an area home to the highest concentration of first magnitude springs in the nation. Over 31,000 pounds of nitrogen is reduced per year (an 98 percent reduction), and 1.5 million gallons -- the equivalent of two Olympic swimming pools -- are recharged into the aquifer daily, benefitting water flow to the springs feeding the Ichetucknee River.
“This is an example of a small community, with good, caring people, making strides in protecting their water,” added Keith. “We are vigilant and appreciate what we have here.”
Humans are not the only ones attracted to the Lake City Wetlands. A happy consequence of the project has been the surge in wildlife, including dozens of bird species.
“The birds found it immediately when the ponds were built -- the ‘cells’ -- even during construction,” said Debbie Segal, president of the Alachua Audubon Society.
According to Audubon volunteers, the number of bird species has surged since the wetlands were constructed, and with 159 species now recorded, it has the second highest bird count in Columbia County, second only to Alligator Lake.
Audubon members regularly see species of Duck, Great Blue Heron, Limpkins, Hawks, Egrets, Eagles, nesting Osprey and even the rare White-faced Ibis. The wetland is also helping struggling species like the Snail Kite -- found in the Everglades -- moving northward and honing in on treatment wetlands like Lake City’s. The Purple Martin is also coming to the area, enjoying the nesting gourds installed by Audubon volunteers. Nesting birds feeding their young can be found in a rookery in one of the wetland cells.
“We may have the first nesting record of Glossy Ibis in the county,” added Segal. “The wildlife are benefiting from it and the water quality is better. It is an oasis for wetland species for the whole region.”
Right now, bird-watching visits must be part of an existing Audubon field trip -- those interested can contact the Four Rivers Audubon Society or the Alachua Audubon Society.
The process of bringing the Lake City Wetlands to life began with a funding request through a grant from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). It evolved through partnerships with the City of Lake City and Columbia County. In the last eight years, approximately $13 million has been invested from the state, the Suwannee River Water Management District and its partners in various projects to remove nutrients and reduce water use in the Ichetucknee Springshed.
Adam Blalock, deputy secretary for DEP, oversees Ecosystem Restorations and implementation of environmental funding. He explained this wetland project was a great fit, as DEP looks for where it can help springs that both need restoration and are in a priority focus area.
“We take projects and see if it is shovel ready, what is the amount of nutrient reduction it can provide, how we can benefit water flow and whether a local government match would be possible,” Blalock shared. “This allows funding to go further.”
Joe Helfenberger, city manager for Lake City, echoed that it was a team effort and hopes the project will serve as a model for the state on how to take a treatment wetland and make it “even more.”
“We’re very proud of the wetlands project,” added Helfenberger. “Not only is it taking care of water management needs, but it is also creating a wildlife habitat that is just exquisite and can serve as an attraction -- and even more importantly -- a public education tool.”
While the Lake City Wetlands are the first in the area, the project is not the first of its kind. The Sweetwater Wetlands Park in Gainesville, Fla., was the first in the region. Communities are taking notice -- with growth comes more use of water. And treatment wetlands like Lake City’s show this alternative for water quality and recharge provide a great solution to prevent communities from exhausting resources.
Paul Dyal, executive director of utilities for the City of Lake City, said he was skeptical at first trying to imagine the spray field becoming what it is today.
“It has far exceeded my expectations not only for what it does for the water but the wildlife,” said Dyal. “I’m a big nature person. Coming out here and rolling down the windows to hear the birds, it just makes you calmer.”
Dyal, who has three children and five grandchildren in the Lake City and Columbia County area, knows good water quality will be important for their future.
“Projects like this mean more to me in the long-term really than it does right now, because we have water now,” added Dyal. “But in 20 to 30 years, that might not be the case. So to me, that’s why projects like this are so important. What we’re doing today is going to influence the future.”
The mission of the Suwannee River Water Management District is to protect and manage water resources using science-based solutions to support natural systems and the needs of the public. The District holds true to the belief of water for nature, water for people. Headquartered in Live Oak, Florida, the District serves 15 surrounding north-central Florida counties.
For more information about the District, visit www.MySuwanneeRiver.com or follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter, search @SRWMD.