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Border Wetland Using Treated Wastewater As Congress Considers Wetland Funding

The BJ Bishop Wetland in Presidio, Texas lies between a water treatment plant and the Rio Grande. The man-made wetland is filled with treated waste water from the plant. Construction is largely funded Congress. A bipartisan bill before Congress proposes to extend federal funding for wetland construction. (Lorne Matalon)


PRESIDIO, Texas--A man-made wetland is now under construction on the Rio Grande.

And this new wetland will be the first on the Rio Grande to use treated wastewater to restore habitat.

This comes as Congress is considering a bipartisan billto extend funding for the construction of man-made wetlands.

The Rio Grande has losthuge swaths of bird and wildlife habitat as water has been diverted for farming and human consumption and the population of the southwest has grown exponentially.

The new man-made wetland leverages geography and a blend of private and federal funding.

Several years ago, local politicians approached the landowner, Terry Bishop. They told Bishop  they wanted to funnel treated wastewater from a sewage treatment plant across his land.

Bishop agreed on condition that he could divert and use some of that water for his own purposes should he ever want to.

Ultimately he and a group of like minded individuals decided to create a new wetland along this section of the river, a key stopover point for migratory birds.

“The city came to me then we just took it from there,” Bishop explained.

“This place isn’t just for the birds to land and have a drink of water. We’re planting things where they can nest and places for them to eat and have them stop by,” he said.

The majority of the more than 75,000 dollars needed to grade the earth and then fill it with tertiary treated waste water is funded by the North American Conservation Wetlands Act.
It gives matching grants to build wetlands in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

“I know it’s going to be good for the wildlife,” said Bishop. The wetland is named for his father, BJ Bishop, a longtime resident and highly respected man along this part of the border.

There are two functioning or planned man-made wetlands on the Rio Grande in New Mexico. The working wetland is at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, another is under construction near Las Cruces.

But the Texas version is the first on the Rio Grande that’s recycling treated wastewater.

Fred Phillips is the landscape architect here.

“A month ago when they were doing the grading, there was no birds. We put the water on the field now, this week I saw avocets, black-necked stilts, mallards, killdeers,” he said,

“It’s a sanctuary already. You know, the water’s back. The life is coming back.”

The foreman on the wetland project is Michael Meihaus. He’s planting hardy native species like bullrush to define the contours of the wetland.

“We’ve got mesquites, cottonwoods, willows,” he explained as he slogged through a mix of mud, earth and water to plant.

Those native species have another purpose. They provide nourishing seeds for birds landing here.

“This is just a catalyst for Mother Nature to take over," Meihaus said.

"All we’re doing is giving it a head start.”

Ryan O’Shaughnessy is a research scientist who studies wetland management at the Borderlands Research Instituteat Sul Ross University in Alpine, Texas.

“It’s not just wildlife that benefits from these wetlands," he said.

"We need to look at these wetlands as the kidneys of the landscape.”

”Wetlands are fantastic at absorbing a heck of a lot of water, filling up and they release the water very, very slowly back into the river.”

He says destroyed or compromised wetlands played an unfortunate role in flooding that unfolded after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005. There weren’t wetlands in place to absorb floodwater barreling down the Mississippi River before it hit the city.

Again, the Texas wetland foreman, Michael Meihaus.

“This is a special project. There’s not a whole lot of things happening on the Rio Grande like this and if we can get people to see what the possibilities are, then we’re doing our job.”

California’s Central Valley hosts a man-made wetland, and in Arizona, there’s the Tres Rios Wetland near Phoenix.

But this Texas experiment also has an economic imperative. This is a hardscrabble part of the border. Tourism is a major driver of the economy.

And now that migratory birds are discovering a new protected stopover on the north-south flyway, project backers hope that birders, and their tourism dollars, also show up in droves.