Sweetwater Wetlands Park consists of over 125 acres of wetlands and ponds that filter the creeks and runoff from Gainesville before it enters Paynes Prairie and the Floridan Aquifer. This park is part of the Paynes Prairie Sheetflow Restoration Project that was begun in 2009 and designed to reduce polution to the Alachua Sink. It was designed by Wetland Solutions in conjunction with Gainesville Regional Utilities, the City of Gainesville Public Works Department, and managers from Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. The success of this project shows what happens when different organizations, including utilities and government agency, work together to come up with and implement solutions.
The park opened to the public 7 days a week in October 2015 and has 3.5 miles of trails. While I was there, I saw many birds including hawks, woods storks and a bald eagle, and they also have alligators and wild horses although those I did not see this time. What I really appreciated was the natural landscaping, even though the restoration is manmade. The image above was the first pond you come to from the parking lot, but not the first filtration pond.
This photograph shows all the bottles, plastic and other garbage that gets washed into the ponds from the creeks in Gainesville. There is also lots of green slime from the excess nitrates and fertilizers. If the three ponds weren't filtering this, all of this debris would find its way to Paynes Prairie and possibly our drinking water supply as the Alachua sink, where the filtered water travels to, connects with the aquifer.
Here is more green slime from the first pond. It was so eerie looking at this section because it reminded me of a map of the continents, even though it was just very polluted water.
As I walked past the second pond, the light hit the trees and turned them incredibly vibrant colors. It was so intense, it was unreal. There was still green slime in the water, but I knew that it was a good thing here instead of in the prairie. Also, the trees looked so natural, like they could be along the banks of some totally unspoiled body of water.
After I saw the big picture, I looked closer and really noticed all the diversity of vegetation. This is truly one of the best restoration projects I have ever witnessed and I think all the birds and animals that make these wetlands home would agree. Below are some of the images of birds I saw during my hike.
Of course not all birds are so extraverted. Some tend to keep to themselves. Fortunately, they make a nice focal point in the tapestry of plants.
The diversity of aquatic plants makes makes good shelter and feeding grounds for all the birds.
The first pond contained all the green slime, while the next pond and surrounding creeks had more invasive plants. By the third pond, which was the very first image in this post, the water was clearer.
As the sun started to set over Sweetwater, the colors in the sky became even more intense and then reflected in the streams and ponds. I felt just as happy as I would have in any pristine wilderness, and that made me deeply grateful that this successful restoration project has been turned into a public park. I am definitely joining, so I can go as many times as I want every year. On the way out, I met a man who was already a member. He told me he went five days a week and always saw something new. As we destroy more natural habitats, projects like these that both filter the water and provide shelter for bird and aquatic life are essential. Sweetwater is very special and well-worth emulating in as many places as possible.