From Wastelands to Wetlands: The Transformation of 27 Acres of the Sedona Arizona Wastewater Treatment Facility to a Nature Preserve and Bird Sanctuary

Contributed by Gateway To Sedona on . Posted in Sedona and the Verde Valley

Ducklings and mother swim away at the Sedona Wetlands Preserve in Sedona, Arizona.Ducklings and mother swim away at the Sedona Wetlands Preserve in Sedona, Arizona.

Sedona, AZ: About five miles south of Sedona on SR 89A, an oasis of six shimmering ponds surrounded by cattails, indigenous trees, pathways, bridges, and viewing platforms suddenly appears on the horizon.  The is the Sedona Wetlands Preserve, a lush green sanctuary visited year round by hundreds of species of birds and other waterfowl that has become a mecca for birding enthusiasts, students of natural history, and others who want to experience the serenity and beauty of this jewel in the desert.

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Although the wetlands have become a popular recreation attraction for tourists and locals alike, its primary purpose is to dispose of Sedona effluent (treated wastewater), processed by the wastewater treatment facility adjacent to the ponds. Disposal is accomplished through three methods: surface evaporation, transpiration (evaporation through plants), and percolation into the ground.

The Sedona Wastewater Treatment Facility consists of 400 acres of high desert terrain completely surrounded by Forest Service lands, approximately five miles south of Sedona. Up until recently, its only method of disposal of effluent was spray irrigation on approximately 300 acres of the site. The City of Sedona realized that this was not the most efficient or environmentally desirable method of disposal, and that it tied up large tracts of land that could not be used for other more productive public uses.  The City appointed a citizens committee to evaluate other wastewater disposal methods and study alternative land uses for land potentially freed up by eliminating spray irrigation. After a year of study, the committee recommended that the City conduct pilot disposal programs using wetlands, and injection of treated effluent into the ground through the use of injection wells. Based on the recommendations from the committee, the City developed a three-pronged plan to use a combination of wetlands, injection, and limited use of spray irrigation to dispose of approximately 1.6 million gallons of Sedona effluent daily.

In order to build injection wells, it was necessary for the City to upgrade the wastewater treatment facility so that it was producing A+ quality effluent. The A+ designation means that it is among the highest water purification levels possible from a wastewater facility. This was required to ensure that effluent injected into the ground was environmentally safe and would not contaminate other ground water supplies.

The twenty-seven acre wetlands facility was constructed and one injection well has been completed, and a second well is under construction. Current plans call for a total of six injection wells to be built on the site in the coming years, and approximately 100 acres of spray irrigation to continue to be used for effluent disposal.

Although the wetlands has not performed as well as hoped for disposing of effluent through percolation, but it still successfully disposes of effluent through surface evaporation and transpiration.

The Sedona Wetlands Preserve has become one the premier birding destinations in Arizona. It has developed into the newest arrow in the Sedona tourism quiver, and has added a new revenue stream to the robust local economy.

The wetlands project, estimated to cost approximately $1.5 million, did not come without controversy. Many in the community believed that spending that much money on what was considerd a recreational facility was a waste of public funds. It quickly became a divisive political issue in the community during the local elections. However, no one can argue the fact that the Sedona Wetlands Preserve is now a significant asset to the community and has been recognized as one of the top bird watching facilities in the State of Arizona.

A second citizens committee spent a year studying alternative land uses for the 200 acres freed up from eliminating spray irrigation, and developed a master land use concept that is currently being considered by the City of Sedona. The wetlands project has transformed an otherwise unwelcome and uninviting sewer treatment facility into a public gathering place, not only for people, but also for a wide variety of wildlife. It has created the opportunity for nature and people to interact in an intimate way and serves as an educational opportunity for children and adults alike.

For more information, see the Sedona Wetlands Preserve page on the City of Sedona's website.