Reusing Wastewater at Sweetwater Wetlands

A secluded corner in the Sweetwater Wetlands

 The Sweetwater Wetland is well known to Tucson’s birders. Located in the midst of an industrial area, between I-10 and the usually dry Santa Cruz River, Sweetwater is a man-made wetland constructed in 1996 to help treat secondary effluent and backwash from the reclaimed water treatment system at adjacent Roger Road Wastewater Treatment Plant. Not only does Sweetwater provide habitat for a wide variety of wildlife, it serves as an environmental education facility.

Away from the rest of the world        

Wide, level paths wind around ponds and streamside habitats, past informational signs and viewing platforms. Twelve-foot tall banks of rushes and cattails, cottonwood trees, and thickets of saltbrush give solitude to wild residents and human visitors alike. In the early morning the air is alive with the calls of birds. Flocks of ducks pattern the sky overhead. Birders with binoculars and cameras try to add rare species to their lists. More than 250 species have been reported at the wetlands, as well as amphibians, insects, and mammals such as bobcats.

A coot preening in the morning sunshine

Large recharging basins at one side of the complex not only attract thousands of waterfowl, they allow treated water to rapidly percolate down to the water table, where it can be recovered by wells and delivered for use in irrigating public spaces such as golf course , lawns, and roadside plantings.In 1940, the area’s water table was at 40’ below the surface. By 1998 it was below 100’. Reusing waste water is an idea whose time has come.

Shoveler ducks
Boat-tailed Grackle

Anna’s Hummingbird

Sand Hill Cranes in Arizona

Courtesy Free Photos

When we traveled in Alaska, we sometimes saw sandhill cranes with their bright red foreheads feeding in fields on the hills above Homer and Kachemak Bay. Sandhill cranes are some of America’s largest birds. Adults can stand up to six feet tall. Occasionally we glimpsed a nesting pair in a marshy area near our home in Fairbanks, in interior Alaska. We didn’t know then that some of those same birds joined flocks of thousands to winter in Southeastern Arizona, the very place we’ve chosen to spend a month of our winter this year.

The annual Wings Over Willcox Birding and Nature Festival had ended by the time we heard of it, but the cranes stay until March. So we drove with daughter Lenora nearly one hundred miles toward Arizona’s Dragoon Mountains and the Sulphur Springs Valley to see them. Every morning they lift off from their roosting areas by the thousands to fly, silhouetted against the sunrise, to their feeding fields in a 60-square-mile protected area. Swaddled against chilly morning temperatures, birdwatchers from all over the world are overwhelmed by the whoosh of wings and the cacophony of calls as the spindly-legged, red-crowned birds fly overhead.

By the time we reached Willcox and drove another nine miles to where we’d been told we could find a viewing area, it was two PM. The birds had finished their morning foraging and returned to their resting sites. A sign at the parking lot said, “Crane Lake Viewing Area, 1.2 miles.”

Crossing Willcox Playa

Inhospitable habitat

After the long drive, another mile on foot didn’t seem too much to ask. We started along a sandy track scraped through thickets of trees and brush. A couple of people coming toward us said yes, the cranes were there. Lots of them. But we would have to stay at a distance to view them.

We trudged across an alkali playa, dry and flat as a table top except for hillocks of fine drifted silt and arroyos cut by storm water. Arizona is part of America’s basin-and-range zone, where ranges of mountains thrust skyward while intervening blocks of land dropped. In prehistoric times the valleys thus formed often filled with large, shallow lakes, gone now except for their dry beds, like this Willcox Playa. We were heading for a remnant of the ancient lake, where the cranes found protection while they rested.

Alkali dust soon coated our shoes. Mounds of tough grasses and occasional trees seemed uninhabited at mid-day, but along with the footprints of innumerable birdwatchers on the path we followed, we saw prints of coyotes, javelinas (pig-like creatures of the southwest), bobcats, rabbits, and even deer, patterning the dust or petrified in dried mud. There were hundreds of burrows belonging to who-knew-which hidden desert denizens, and scat left by coyotes and some other creature that obviously lived on seeds. Old bird nests in the trees testified that this was a place to see other birds beside cranes. 

Finally the flat ground rose to low hills. We’d reached the edge of the playa and from a man-made rise we could see Crane Lake glinting, still a quarter-mile off. We could go no closer. Time for the binoculars. What might have been a line of vegetation extending out into the shallow water became instead a line of hundreds of sand hill cranes, drowsing motionless during their mid-afternoon rest break.

Through my telephoto lens: hundreds of cranes at rest in Crane Lake

Aldo Leopold said about the sand hill crane in his book Sand County Almanac, “ When we hear his call, we hear no mere bird, we hear the trumpet of evolution.” Who knows how long these magnificent birds have been winging their way between north and south? It’s good that humans are now working together to keep their resting and feeding places safer. It was worth a two-hundred mile round trip to see them.

A Love Affair with Arizona

A desert sunrise
In the Saguaro National Monument

When I was young, the gorgeous desert and canyon photographs in Arizona Highways magazine enticed me. I was also fascinated by the lovely art of the indigenous peoples of the desert. If only I could leave behind the drab, wet Northwest winters to experience for myself the light and warmth of exotic Arizona!

God loves to give his children the desires of their hearts. When we’re young, we may find that hard to believe. Sometimes we want things badly. Not getting them leads to disappointment. We don’t realize that what we want may be bad for us, or that we must learn to wait for what we want.  Sometimes, getting what we think we want turns into disillusionment.  But often, God delights us by eventually giving us what we desire, and more.

An opportunity to fulfill my desert wish came after I had graduated from college and taught school for four years in Washington State. I sent resumes to various Southwest cities, eager to experience life in the land I dreamed about. My sister and I set out for Arizona, stopping for an interview in California. There I learned that, due to a misunderstanding, I had not been released from my previous job.

Major disappointment!  We turned around and drove back to Washington, never even seeing Arizona, and I went back to my former position. A few weeks after school started, I met Bob Biggar, a young man from Alaska. Six months later, we married. We moved to Alaska. I’d never thought of living there, but I loved it. While we raised our family, I started a writing career, and we made lifelong friends. (More heart’s desires fulfilled!)

When my husband’s health began to fail, doctors told him he needed a warmer climate. We returned to Washington, and one winter we decided to take our travel trailer to Arizona. We enjoyed a month of exploring fascinating places while I did research for a young adult book set in Arizona. Then our insurance company cancelled our auto coverage. The only way to resolve the problem was to return to Washington. I did finish my research, though I still wanted to experience more of the Grand Canyon State.

A while later, Bob died. After six years, I married Hank (a good gift from God which is another story.) My daughter, Lenora, received her heart’s desire when she married Steve.  Then she and Steve moved from Seattle to live in Arizona year-round.

I missed Lenora terribly, but now we had an excuse to travel to Arizona every winter. This year we’ve rented a vacation apartment, and we’re staying a month. I’ve come to realize through my daughter’s experience that I’m wimpy about hot weather. I really don’t want to live here year around. But God has given me the chance to enjoy the desert and its denizens up close and personal during the best time of year, and also to spend time with loved ones. All because God knows our heart’s desires and he loves to fulfill them.

Lenora, Steve and Bella with Hank, after an evening walk in the desert