“As difficult as it may be to believe, Sweetwater Wetlands Park was not built to provide a place to spot alligators and birds.
It was constructed — in the shape of an alligator’s head, by the way — to restore the natural flow into Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park and to clean the water before it seeps into the Floridan aquifer and is ultimately tapped as our drinking water.
And it appears to be as successful at those two goals as it is at being a magnet for wildlife and people who want to see it.
A report on the first five years of operation, required for permits to build the park, shows the system of ponds and vegetation has trapped sediments and reduced nutrients while restoring a wetland area between it and Alachua Sink — a large sinkhole on the northeastern side of the state park.
“We’ve met the success criteria and have asked to be released from monitoring requirements,” said Alice Rankeillor, supervising engineer with Gainesville’s public works stormwater division. “We are exceeding expectations in removing nitrogen.”
Sweetwater Branch is a creek that runs through East Gainesville. It flows both above and below ground in some places.
It collects stormwater runoff, industrial discharge from the Gainesville Regional Utilities power plant and effluent from the Main Street Water Reclamation Facility.
Prior to the wetlands park, the creek’s untreated water flowed directly to Alachua Sink via a canal.
Now Sweetwater flows into a series of basins to remove sediment and trash, three enhanced wetland cells in which vegetation helps remove nutrients and finally through an outlet as sheetflow over wetlands. The canal has been backfilled.
Agencies including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the St. Johns River Water Management District had to sign off on permits that required monitoring of its effectiveness.
Rick Hutton, GRU supervising engineer for water and wastewater, said the system is working as planned.
“We’re very happy with it and it came out really well in both restoring flow to wetlands and removing nutrients,” Hutton said. “It attracts visitors from all over … and I’m curious as to how many people completely understand it.”…