Located in Lakeland, Florida, the $1.5 million Se7en Wetlands project began in 2015 wanted to create a more educational environmentally conscious experience for residents.
Se7en Wetlands connects to the North Prong of the Alafia River, which flows directly to Tampa Bay, Florida. Se7en Wetlands also provides water for Tampa Electric Company’s Polk Power Station. Once a phosphate mine that began in the 1920s, part of the Se7en Wetlands site was also used as phosphate clay settling ponds.
When the mine and all of the operations closed in 1984, the property was purchased by the City of Lakeland to become a Constructed Wetland Treatment System. The Treatment Wetlands have been in continuous operation since 1987, currently receiving all of the city’s treated wastewater, Lakeland Electric’s reuse water, and Polk County’s excess reclaimed water.
In 2018, Se7en Wetlands opened to the public as a new city park for passive recreation.
With a total size of 7,000 gallons per minute, the Se7en Wetlands project wanted to take an existing constructed wastewater treatment wetland that has been in operation for over 30 years and open it to the public as a recreational area with environmental education opportunities.
There were two phases of the project. Phases I and II included creating 8.5 miles of trails, three boardwalks, trail markers, five picnic pavilions, restroom facilities, public entrances, security upgrades, and four educational signs.
“The most exciting aspect of this project was the prospect of sharing this jewel of nature with the public, so they could see and experience what we have seen and experienced for so many years,” said Bill Anderson, City of Lakeland director of water utilities. “Additionally, the opportunity to dream and consider so many options for this park was equally as exciting.”
Before diving into the project, the team asked itself a simple question: “How does a water utility get into the park business”?
The answer was reaching out to the Lakeland Parks and Recreation Department for assistance. A key component for the team was ensuring visitor safety while maintaining treatment functions.
To achieve this, the project developed rules to ensure visitor safety while protecting treatment wetland assets and functions; improved security by limiting access to certain areas and installing security cameras; developed a volunteer ranger program; and educated visitors and the general public about wastewater treatment functions of the property.
Constructing former phosphate mining and clay settling areas over wetlands was difficult in challenging soils, but this was mitigated by selecting a subcontractor that had specific experience in top-down bridge construction in environmentally sensitive areas to complete the boardwalks and bridges.
Since the new park features would be maintained with existing wastewater staff and budgets, coordinating park maintenance into ongoing routes and schedules ensured the team could successfully take on the additional work.
The City of Lakeland, City of Mulberry, Polk County and State Representatives and Senators came together over time to recognize that this project was of statewide importance to the water quality of the region including Tampa Bay, according to Pam Page, City of Lakeland, Deputy Director of Parks & Recreation.
There was an emphasis on protecting the integrity of the berms, visitor safety and observing the environment safely.
“These had to remain in the forefront of our minds,” said Bruce Hall, S&ME principal landscape architect.
Site access was another obstacle, so the partnership with the county was critical in allowing the facility to have access through Polk County’s Loyce E. Harpe Park, which saves Lakeland residents approximately 10 minutes of travel time.
“Se7en Wetlands is a hidden gem that we had the opportunity to uncover to the public,” said Jay Hood, S&ME technical principal.
Though the team had no anticipation of seeing wildlife on the scale that they did, alligators were prevalent in large numbers and sizes upon completion of the project. Other wildlife ranged from coyote, birds, and rabbits to gophers, tortoises and large spiders in the wetlands.
Since the initial opening of its gates, with only a small portion of trails and amenities completed, the site had more than 25,000 visitors hike the trails. 1,600 individuals have participated in personalized tours or activities as well.
Nevertheless, there is room for future phases of development of the master plan but for now, the project was deemed incredibly successful.
“The process has been very successful,” said Sarah Malone, Se7en Wetlands manager. “As a water utility, working with our parks and recreation department and county parks and natural resources has been vital to the success of Se7en Wetlands.”