Washing Water

Photos Courtesy of Clark County Wetlands Park

Located just 7 miles east of the famous Las Vegas Strip, the Clark County Wetlands Park is a 2,900-acre preserve designed to protect and enhance wetlands for wildlife habitat, environmental education, recreation, and water quality. At the park’s core is the 210-acre nature preserve, which opened in 2001. Here, in the midst of the Mojave Desert, visitors can expect unique experiences as they explore trails winding among numerous streams, ponds, and wooded habitats, with stunning views of adjacent Frenchman Mountain and Rainbow Garden areas.

The source of the water in the park is the Las Vegas Wash (Wash), a major focal point of conservation efforts and education programs. Because of the presence of so much water and the abundant wildlife habitat, the park’s goals are varied. To meet these, the 30,000-square-foot Wetlands Park Nature Center was opened in the spring of 2013. It features an auditorium, classrooms, meeting rooms, and an interactive exhibit gallery that offers visitors learning experiences related to the park’s habitat, cultural and ecological resources, and water-management strategies.

The park is a modern engineering feat involving a complicated array of interconnecting components. These include the erosion-control structures along the Wash, engineered nature-preserve pond and stream systems, and a series of connected ponds designed with migratory birds in mind. Each piece plays an important role in improving water quality and increasing biodiversity. Overall, these pieces work together for the wetlands, acting like a sponge by absorbing nutrients and sediment to improve the water quality.

Las Vegas Wash

The Wash is the main conveyance system for reclaimed (treated) water that has already been used in the Las Vegas Valley. An estimated 180-million gallons per day flows down the Wash to Lake Mead. Of that, 95 percent comes in the form of reclaimed water. The remaining water is urban flow from surface run-off. All of the urban flows that come into the Wash are untreated, including storm water run-off from the entire Las Vegas hydrological basin. This run-off collects pollutants, like soil, oil, grease, pet waste, and fertilizer and carries them untreated into the Wash. The content in the run-off is an issue, and so is the volume of water in the Wash.

In the past, increasing base flow and storm events caused major erosion within the Wash, requiring the construction of a complex system of erosion-control structures, called weirs. Weirs are designed to slow the flow of the Wash, decreasing erosion and reducing sediment that makes its way to Lake Mead, which is the source of Southern Nevada’s drinking water. Weirs also create pond-like areas in the stream, providing an ideal habitat for a variety of aquatic wildlife. These structures also increase the amount of time water remains in the wetlands, enabling plants to remove pollutants and “polish” the water.

When the erosion-control system is complete, a fertile ribbon of green will run the entire 7.5-mile length of the park.

Nature Preserve

The engineered pond and stream systems within the nature preserve receive approximately 3-million gallons of tertiary-treated, filtered, disinfected, and reclaimed water from the Water Reclamation District daily. The nature preserve acts as a kidney, helping to remove contaminants from the water. Systems of ponds and connecting streams further refine the water by absorbing nitrates and phosphates, as well as allowing sunlight to penetrate, aiding in the reduction of bacteria.

In addition to water-quality improvements, ponds and streams provide a quality habitat and give recreationalists like birders and photographers a place to practice their hobbies. Each of the preserve’s nine ponds is surrounded by both paved and unpaved trails, providing visitors excellent wildlife viewing opportunities. This treated water has been reborn on the east end of the Las Vegas Valley, giving visitors a lush, green oasis where they can recreate and learn about the importance of wetlands in improving water quality.

Mitigation Ponds

The five mitigation ponds cover approximately 100 acres and were constructed with water-quality improvement and habitat-restoration in mind. These ponds accept flows from the nature preserve and build upon the cleansing that has already occurred. Water flows in series from the upper mitigation pond to the lower before being released into the Las Vegas Wash. The ponds were constructed with a series of diversions that allow for seasonal management of the ponds. The ponds function as deeper ponds during the summer months, while offering waterfowl and wading birds shallow water during spring and fall migrations.

Lessons Learned

The park utilizes reclaimed water and recommends potential projects use this readily available resource. Water-quality projects are an integral part of the park because they provide recreation, education, and conservation opportunities. Experience has shown that utilizing reclaimed water has not adversely impacted the successful achievement of the park’s goals and objectives. To the contrary, without reclaimed water the park would struggle to meet those goals.

Managing treated water for recreation comes with its challenges. For example, visitors are asked to stay out of the water. While swimmers and kayakers are tempted to enter, they are asked to enjoy other recreational pursuits within the park. These interactions often lead to quality educational moments as well.

Wetlands are a rarity in the desert, and the park utilizes them to its advantage. Last year, over 2,000 school children were educated on the importance of water in the desert. Water and the feel of an oasis draw visitors of all demographics to experience the natural world. Learning in an active setting drives the messages of water quality and conservation home.

Conservation is an important ethic for the park. Plant communities and wildlife are flourishing in the desert wetland for valley residents and visitors to enjoy. In fact, the park is so successful that nature’s master wetland engineers—beavers—have found a new home in the park!

In creating and managing wetlands, park staff has found that starting with small-scale projects and using them as templates has worked well. This includes restoration and erosion-control efforts. From there, best-management practices can be developed to guide future larger projects. Additionally, the big picture is kept in mind to ensure that all developments move toward the end goal. Keeping a vision of the desired product ensures continuity throughout the implementation phase.

The Wetlands Park can be a template for a water-quality improvement project that is multi-faceted and fun. Due to effective planning and management, the park has met success in each of its objectives. Bringing together reclaimed water, recreation, education, and habitat enhancement has worked well for this park.

Brandon Barrow is the Manager of Wetlands Park in Clark County, Nev. Chris Leavitt is the Curator of Education for Clark County. Allison Brody is the Recreation Program Supervisor for Clark County. Reach them at wetlands@clarkcountynv.gov .