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STINK CREEK AND SWEETWATER: IN PRAISE OF REGULATIONS

By Nic.Korte

Recently, I watched our president sign an Executive Order that requires two regulations to be removed for each one added. That made me think of Stink Creek.

I grew up in quintessential “Make-America-Great”/middle-class/all-white/small-town/Midwest USA.
It was, indeed, the kind of town that I could start off in the morning on my bike and find some friends and go to the pool or the ball diamond or wherever. One place I was supposed to stay away from was Stink Creek—so named because it received the effluent from the local sewage plant, which, in those days, was not nearly so regulated as now. And, to be explicit, it stank.

The creek was a draw for us, however. Where else could we take our BB-guns and shoot at floating debris? I well remember being found there by the father of one of my friends. I recall my friend being drug along by the arm as his father admonished, “if you want to play in that creek, let’s go home and I’ll p___ in a bucket, and you can play in that!”

The years went by, I grew up and eventually moved to Tucson and the University of Arizona (Go Wildcats!), where my wife and I both received graduate degrees. I had been interested in birds all of my life, but those early years in Arizona are when my life-long hobby took-off. On our first camping trip, we went to Madera Canyon for its beauty and hiking, not realizing this canyon was a nationally-famous birding destination. We put up our little, too-small, pup tent. A lady walked by and said, “This looks like fun!” I could tell she really didn't mean it—a sentiment proven true by our poor sleep that night—mostly caused by inadequate padding for sleeping bags.

The next day we walked by the lady’s camp and she invited us into her luxurious trailer where she had recently baked cookies. She and her husband had placed hummingbird feeders all around their campsite and I, who had only glimpsed a hummingbird a few times while growing up in Illinois, was hooked. I still remember the lady’s excitement when a Magnificent Hummingbird appeared. “Oh, there's another big one,” she would exclaim.

The first thing I did after the camping trip was to buy a copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds. I have been birding in the Tucson area ever since. Although I have returned to Madera Canyon a number of times, my most frequent birding location in recent years has been the Sweetwater Wetlands. Sweetwater, with 296, has more species reported than any other birding-hotspot in heavily-birded Pima County. I never birded Sweetwater in the old days. It didn't exist.

It is interesting to consider what a wildlife paradise was Tucson in pre-settlement days. The Santa Cruz and Rillito Rivers, now channels for storm run-off, were perennial streams. Wetlands and cottonwood-lined streams provided miles of outstanding subtropical habitat. All that disappeared as settlers methodically cut down the trees, built dams and irrigation works, and eventually pumped so much groundwater that only desert remained.

A city, soon encompassing a million residents, needs a lot of waterworks, some of which result from treating sewage. In most locations, as in Grand Junction, treated water can be returned to a river. Many oceanside cities pump their treated effluent into the ocean. What could Tucson do with its “aguas negras” or black water as it is called in Spanish-speaking areas? How about a constructed wetland? Built in 1996, the wetland helps treat secondary effluent and backwash from a nearby reclaimed water treatment system. The City of Tucson, on its website, touts the area as follows: “Sweetwater Wetlands is a water treatment facility, an urban wildlife habitat, and an outdoor classroom.”
(This Sora, a wetland obligate species and usually secretive, was showing-off one morning while I visited Sweetwater.)  

Many birders visit Tucson and even in my infrequent visits to Sweetwater, I’ve encountered people from Colorado, and several birders from foreign countries. As for myself, Sweetwater is where I had my only western sightings of two eastern specialties: Baltimore Oriole, and Black and White Warbler. A quick check on ebird (an online site for listing birds seen) shows that nearly 10,000 checklists have been submitted for the area. Think about that. Ebird has only been available for about a decade, and while most birders use it, many still do not. Plus, birders serious enough to turn in checklists are only a fraction of the visitors to the Sweetwater Wetlands, most of whom are on a simple nature walk.

It isn’t a stretch at all to say that one of the City of Tucson’s most valuable resources resulted from sewage treatment regulations—which, brings me back to Stink Creek. I’ll bet my nieces and nephews living in my hometown have never heard of it. After those nasty regulations eliminated the smelly effluent, the creek was given a new name, and alongside it now lies my hometown’s most expensive real estate.

(Sweetwater is a great place to view a variety of ducks such as these Northern Shovelers.)

(Tucson is not unique. Many cities now include constructed wetlands as part of both their sewage treatment system and their park system.)

This post provided by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society. Send questions/comments to audubongv@gmail.com]To learn more and to participate in the activities of Grand Valley Audubon, please see our website at audubongv.org and “like” us on Facebook!]
 

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