Journey Through the Wetlands of Vero Beach

Cooperating with nature gets the job done and then some at West Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility Wetlands

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Various cells of water and wetlands are separated by small berms. Photo by Sam Wolfe
Various cells of water and wetlands are separated by small berms. Photo by Sam Wolfe

The Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci loved to observe “the beautiful spectacles of rippling water,” which he believed had an infinite variety of motions. This fascination led him to design a variety of hydroengineering projects; though most of them never came to fruition, the idea that flowing water could be put to a vast array of purposes intrigued the enigmatic genius throughout his life.

Here in Vero Beach, the principles of flowing water are used to benefit the local environment and beautify the landscape—all through the imitation of nature. It is a combination that might have fascinated Leonardo. And it can be observed at the West Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility Wetlands. A catchy name? Probably not. An ingenious design and a lovely place to explore? Yes, indeed.

A flock of blue-winged teal, a small, migratory duck species, fly across the wetlands. Photo by Sam Wolfe
A flock of blue-winged teal, a small, migratory duck species, fly across the wetlands. Photo by Sam Wolfe

This man-made wetland site was designed in 1993 when the county acquired the property, which had previously been a sod farm. “It was designed to be a final polishing for the wastewater,” explains Richard Meckes, operations manager for the Indian River County Department of Utility Services. Every day, 6 million gallons of water move through the 169 acres of land next to the wastewater treatment facility, where the water has already undergone initial processing.

In the wetlands, the water is funneled through a series of drainage areas in which the vegetation absorbs certain nutrients that are good for marsh plants but would be harmful to the lagoon if discharged into the canals. Although this specific marsh is designed by humans, its purification of water is a natural process. “That’s what wetlands do,” Meckes says. “This is designed around nature.”

A little blue heron forages for its next meal. Photo by Sam Wolfe
A little blue heron forages for its next meal. Photo by Sam Wolfe

Further scientific detail is provided by Sean Lieske, director of the county’s Department of Utility Services. “The water runs through the wetlands’ plants, like cattails, which need nitrogen and phosphorous. So the plants uptake that, and it enables them to grow and proliferate. The water percolates through and comes out cleaner.”

As a result, Meckes explains, “the water discharged into the canal is better quality than the water already in the canal.” He sums up both the method and the philosophy: “It’s a man-made wetland that does what natural wetlands do.”

By enhancing the water quality of the canals, the facility’s wetlands help protect the lagoon. It is noteworthy that this wetland site was designed 20 years ago, long before the present-day emphasis on lagoon health. “This was very cutting edge at the time,” Meckes says. “There was the forethought to look at this before the lagoon became an issue.”

Another benefit of wetlands is that they make great habitats for birds. In turn, this makes them great places for birdwatching. The West Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility Wetlands are open to the public Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and Saturday from 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. The address is 8405 8th St. The site formerly featured a boardwalk, but it is no longer usable and has been blocked off. Nevertheless, the wetlands are still very attractive to birdwatchers, even being listed as a hotspot on eBird, the popular online resource from Cornell University.

Lizards can be seen making the property home. Photo by Sam Wolfe
Lizards can be seen making the property home. Photo by Sam Wolfe

Lieske and Meckes are quick to state, however, that they see these aspects as side benefits. “We look at this as a treatment process first and an amenity second,” Lieske explains. “It creates a site for birds to nest, and it’s a great site for the community. However, we maintain it with the main purpose of treating the water and protecting the lagoon.” Call it a win-win.

The wetlands are a rich environment. In the early morning, the pale predawn light awakens a joyful chorus of birds, and by the time the orange and coral hues of sunlight are reflecting on the waters, it is fully evident that the marsh teems with abundant life. Black-bellied whistling ducks and fulvous whistling ducks have been sighted there; and yes, they really do whistle, especially when taking off or coming in for a water landing.

Little blue herons are numerous; a distinct species from the great blue heron, they have a color pattern of deep blue with hints of purple, along with a blue-gray bill. A juvenile little blue heron is actually white; as it matures, it molts, losing the white feathers and growing the blue ones. The presence of a number of juveniles, flying along with mature ones—perhaps their parents—suggests that these birds are nesting nearby.

Harder to spot yet nevertheless fascinating is the marsh wren. A reclusive creature that loves the concealment offered by marshy habitats, it is more likely to be heard than seen; however, it is the sounds of the marsh wren that are unforgettable. Marsh wrens communicate with a complex range of vocalizations, including trills, chirps, and sounds reminiscent of clicks. Although they may hold each note for little more than a single second, they can continue for 20 minutes and barely repeat a note. That could mean 1,000 notes from just one tiny bird!

A palm warbler is one of the birds that can be found in the wetlands. Photo by Sam Wolfe
A palm warbler is one of the birds that can be found in the wetlands. Photo by Sam Wolfe

The painted bunting, one of our most colorful birds, has also been seen at the wetlands. The male painted bunting has vibrant hues of cobalt blue, red, yellow, and green; the female’s plumage is a range of greens and yellows, making her camouflaged yet still beautiful.

A rare sighting that has been reported at the wetlands is the cave swallow. This bird has plumage of gray, black, and ochre, and it is notable for its ingenious ability to sculpt a nest out of mud. Cave swallows are more likely to be seen in South Florida or the Caribbean rather than our area, so sightings in Vero Beach are of considerable interest.

Glossy ibis are one of the bird species that can be found in the wetlands. Photo by Sam Wolfe
Glossy ibis can be found in the wetlands. Photo by Sam Wolfe

All told, more than 170 different species of birds have been reported at the West Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility Wetlands. That number represents extraordinary abundance for a man-made habitat that was not even intended primarily as a bird sanctuary.

The wetlands were designed to purify water in imitation of nature. By virtue of imitating nature, they are inevitably beautiful, and they serve as a rich and life-sustaining environment. And they offer us a fascinating place to explore.

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