When the City of Orlando opened the world’s first large-scale wetland treatment center three decades ago, it was far ahead of the times.
Now there are 2,000 similar centers around the world, including 600 in the United States and 35 in Florida.
The 1,200 acres of former pastureland in Christmas can handle 57 million gallons of sewage effluent a day, which is filtered naturally through the wetlands and discharged 40 days later as drinkable water into the St. Johns River.
The scenic Orlando Wetlands Park is like nature’s sponge, cleansing the water as it seeps into native plants that filter out harmful nutrients.
Back in the late 1960s and 1970s, wastewater was discharged into streams, lakes or oceans. Wetlands treatment technology passes wastewater effluent, or stormwater runoff, through a natural wetland system.
Former Orlando Mayor Bill Frederick and city leaders had the foresight to spent $21 million on the new technology, hand plant 2.2 million plants that represented 60 native species and submerge 1,200 acres of pastureland to transform it into man-made wetland.
“They were far ahead of their time,” said Mark Sees, who has served as wetland manager of the park for nearly 20 years. “It has saved many millions of dollars by treating water naturally, rather than building miles of pipelines and more treatment plants.”
The city was under federal pressure to upgrade its Iron Bridge Water Pollution Control Facility, which processes sewage of nearly a half-million people in Orlando, Winter Park, Maitland, Casselberry and unincorporated Orange and Seminole counties.
In 1986, Orlando was desperate for an environmentally responsible way of getting rid of wastewater and paid $5 million for the 1,650-acre Sun Charm Ranch, a half hour east of downtown. It was nothing more than an experiment to salvage decades of pollution that had spoiled the Wekiva and Econlockatchee Rivers and Shingle Creek.
In 1987, the Iron Bridge facility began pumping chlorinated effluent 17 miles to Orlando Wilderness Park, which was later renamed to Orlando Wetlands Park.
The wetlands capture phosphorus and nitrogen nutrients — chemicals in effluent that act as fertilizer and ruin the natural ecology of lakes and rivers.
Wetlands have become the victim of American development. Less than half of the 215 million acres of wetlands originally present in the United States prior to settlement remained by the mid 1970s.
Today, wetlands are recognized as a valuable natural resource.
In addition to its sewage filtration system, Orlando Wetlands Park provides a habitat for 60 different bird species and 1,700 alligators. Its benefits include harboring rare and endangered species, offering flood protection and recreation opportunities with 18 miles of trails through the scenic wetlands.
The park is home to wintering waterfowl like the blue-winged teal, common moorhens and American coots. Wood storks, white ibis, black-crowned night herons and other wading birds are common during the cooler months. Bald eagles, limpkins, red-shouldered hawks, black vultures and turkey vultures are year-round residents.
Raccoons, river otters, white-tailed deer and bobcats can be seen along the roads and hiking trails. The Orlando Wetlands is home to over 30 species of wildlife that are listed on the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Threatened and Endangered Wildlife list.
Sees said that the Cypress Dome and islands scattered through the park serve as bird sanctuaries that fill up each evening with nesting waterfowl. It’s a huge draw for birding photographers from around the world.
The park is open year-round from sunrise to sunset. Each February, it hosts the Orlando Wetlands Festival, which educates more than 8,000 visitors about the importance of the park.