Saturday, June 25, 2016

Wanderings: Brightwater

I lean on the metal railing and watch families of ducks and Canada geese gliding across the pond, its still waters reflecting the cloud-dotted blue skies overhead. Ruby - my dog-niece - is sprawled on the sun-warmed boardwalk planks at my sister's feet, sniffing in the direction of those watchful waterfowl and adorable fluffy babies. After a few minutes, we make our way back up the trail, passing through a bower of blooming fireweed, oceanspray, and Nootka rose. Robins chortle from overhead perches; violet-green swallows swoop and dive in our path; red-winged blackbirds sound the alarm as we pass by their nesting sites.

And presiding over this beautiful scene are the modern, low-profile buildings quietly processing the wastewater from more than 200,000 residents in north King and south Snohomish counties. It's another beautiful day on the grounds of the Brightwater Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Wait a minute. Wastewater treatment plant? Doesn't it smell bad? Why would anyone want to go for a walk at a wastewater plant?

After visiting Brightwater, you'll be wondering why anyone wouldn't want to go for a walk there! And no, it doesn't smell. Not a bit.

Anyone who has lived in the area for awhile can probably remember what a controversy the Brightwater project was. I can't recall whether it was the cost of the project or the location or both that were causing the consternation... but at any rate, the plant was completed in 2011 and now stands as a solid example of habitat restoration, and proof that new infrastructure doesn't have to come at the cost of natural ecosystems.

The treatment plant grounds are an ecosystem unto themselves, with forests, meadows and wetlands supporting more bird species than I have the knowledge to identify. You look around and there is not an invasive plant to be found (okay, there might have been some Himalayan blackberries along the fringes, but that's about all I saw...) because these grounds have been carefully replanted with such a lush variety of native plants that it almost seems unnatural. It's like getting a glimpse of what the landscape would look like around here if humans had never set foot in this region and brought our non-native and invasive plants with us.

Upon arrival at the plant, you're greeted by a large water molecule. The nerd in me saw this and rejoiced. Turn left at the water molecule and head toward Brightwater Center, a beautiful modern-looking building that earned LEED Platinum certification for its sustainable construction. This facility hosts community events, classes, and even church services on Sunday mornings. You can also rent it out for your parties or wedding, if you so desire. I've attended a few native-plant gardening classes in one of their impressive labs, and have even checked out the restrooms with toilets that flush using water reclaimed from the treatment plant.

Walking past the Brightwater Center and their gorgeous dahlia beds, you pick up the gravel path that meanders down to the large pond on the property, where you can find the boardwalk viewing area and families of ducks and geese. The pond now boasts dozens of wooden structures adorned with what appear to be willow cuttings. I don't know for sure, but my best guess is that they were placed in the pond to provide haul-out or nesting areas for the ducks and geese.

From the pond, follow the trail back out and head toward the north end of the park, where you'll find several loop trails winding through a forest, and a short climb to the top of a small hill with a partial view looking out over the treatment plant down below.

There's even a short trail that dead-ends in a shaded glen next to a quiet stream: the perfect place to sit and listen, think, or write.

The majority of the property is open and grassy, with trails that meander along wetlands hemmed in by cattails and willows, and guarded by red-winged blackbirds. Follow the trails through this meadow-like area to the south end of the property and try not to flinch as the violet-green swallows swoop close and dart past you. Here, you'll pass close by the wastewater treatment plant itself, but you'll notice that it is surprisingly quiet. And not smelly... all thanks to the fact that the treatment works are entirely enclosed, with nothing open to the outside air.

Anchoring the south end of the property is another - larger - hill similar to the one at the north end of the property. When I toured the wastewater treatment plant with coworkers several years ago (I worked for a company whose customers were largely from the wastewater industry), I discovered that those two large hills were created from the earth that was dug out to make room for the underground treatment works. The amount of earth they had to move was massive, and if you ever get to see the long, cavernous tunnel running beneath the plant, you'll be able to understand why those hills at each end of the property are so massive!

On this particular day, I had planned to hike to the top of that hill for a grand view of the whole Brightwater property, but Miss Ruby was panting in the heat and letting us know that she'd like to head back to the car and go home now, thank you very much. So the climb to the top of the hill will wait for another day... and you can be sure that I'll be back!

This place is worth a visit if you're in the area. Brightwater's 70 acres of natural habitat and easy, flat walking paths are perfect for a contemplative stroll, birdwatching, or tiring out a very energetic pitbull.

Many people have a negative impression of wastewater treatment plants; thinking of them as noisy, smelly (okay, many of them do smell), and a blight to ecosystems. In fact, these facilities are often staffed by people who care as much about the environment as I do, and whose grounds offer wildlife habitat and incorporate sustainable practices like producing electricity from waste methane gas and recycling treated wastewater for irrigation or recharging wetlands... or flushing toilets.

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