San Joaquin River DOTMDL -- Technical Working Group

Wetlands part of plant upgrade

Stockton Record - June 22, 2005
By Dana Nichols

Wetlands part of plant upgrade
Stockton Record 6/22/05
By Dana Nichols, staff writer

STOCKTON -- Stockton residents soon will be contributing to a beautiful field-trip stop for schoolchildren every time they flush a toilet.

A $49 million upgrade under way at Stockton's sewage-treatment plant includes a mile-long, 140-acre wetland. A year from now, the cattails and tules now being planted should have multiplied enough to begin filtering pollutants from city wastewater.

The reeds, shallow ponds and islands also will create a haven for ducks, stilts, avocets and other water-loving birds. A massive boardwalk on pilings at the west end of the wetland will offer access to birdwatchers and school groups, said Tony Stanbridge, the OMI-Thames employee who is assistant general manager of the city's sewage plant.

The wetland is being created on the northernmost ponds long used by the city to treat wastewater.

Stockton's municipal sewage ponds for decades have been a destination for birders, offering them a place to view species seen nowhere else in the Central Valley.

"That's great. I had no idea they were actually going to do it," said Waldo Holt, an Audubon Society member who has been visiting Stockton's sewage ponds for 20 years.

A little gull and a black-headed gull sighted there in the early 1980s made the ponds famous among birders, Holt said. He confessed that on days after fall or winter storms blow in from the Pacific, he sometimes visits the ponds three or four times a day to see birds such as the ruddy turnstone, black turnstone, red knot and white-rumped sandpiper.

Holt said the new habitat being created might attract a rare bird called the least bittern. "That is a bird from wetlands that has been largely extirpated from the Valley," Holt said.

For the moment, the wetland is a whole lot of dry, dusty work. A crew of 10 from Montana-based Bitteroot Restoration is scrambling to plant 180,000 cattails and tules. The trick is to get them all in the ground fast enough so that they all are still alive when the ponds are filled again, crew members said.

"Right now we're just concentrating on the cattails," said Abe Fielding, a crew member from southern Oregon. "They can stand to be dry for a while."

Baby birds may delay the day when the water comes. Yellow tape cordons a section of the wetland where black-necked stilts and American avocets are waiting for their eggs to hatch.

The protective parents squawk and dive at intruders, Stanbridge said. "The birds got really aggressive when we started to work in the area."

But the work isn't being done primarily to benefit birds or birdwatchers. What humans see as icky waste is largely tasty nutrients to cattails and tules.

And Stockton has a 2006 deadline to clean up the water it discharges into the San Joaquin River.

Stanbridge said the new system will be both better and cheaper, because the plants in the wetland will do work that now requires a lot of electrical power to run pumps and blast compressed air through treatment tanks.

The wetland won't, however, take care of ammonia, long a problem pollutant in Stockton's discharges. Plant upgrades to address that problem are under construction. #

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