"If you build it, they will come," is one of the themes that highlight the City of Prineville's Crooked River Wetlands Complex on the west edge of town. In this case, the "it" is the secondary wastewater ponds, and the "they" are a wide diversity of wildlife species, including humans bearing binoculars, or riding bicycles or parents with strollers that explore this complex.
If you've never been to the wetlands complex, it is located along the banks of the Crooked River just before Highway 26 enters Prineville. The series of settling ponds came into fruition as a much cheaper and more environmentally friendly alternative to the City of Prineville's effluent issue. Instead of building a $67 million-mechanical system to meet the city's growing demands, the City took another route with building the wetlands as a key component of the wastewater system, utilizing natural processes to treat the wastewater.
Construction of the complex was completed in 2017. The 120-acre campus includes numerous settling ponds, over 5.4 miles of trails (3.25 miles are paved), a covered pavilion and restrooms. Bulletin boards near the parking area post information regarding current and upcoming events. Local students helped create the 13 informative signs distributed along the trails.
- Courtesy of Crooked River Wetlands
In 2019, the National Association of Clean Water crowned the Crooked River Wetlands as the "Project of the Year" during the 52nd Engineering Excellence Awards ceremony, as one of 16 winning projects out of 196 that were submitted.
Besides allowing the effluent to slowly percolate into the Crooked River, the complex was also designed for recreational and educational activities.
"There are two groups involved at the wetlands, the Crooked River Wetlands Volunteers and the Prineville Bird Club," said Chuck Gates, retired CCHS biology teacher and birder extraordinaire, "Last summer, Diana Roberts came up with the idea that we could offer bird walks regularly." Roberts—a CRW volunteer and bird club member—and Gates came up with the current schedule of guided walks. From November to April the bird walks are held once a month, on the first Saturday of the month, from 9:45 am to noon. During the warmer portion of the year, May through October, the guided outings are held on the first and third Saturdays of the month, from 7:45 am to 10 am.
Each walk has one expert birder leader and a couple of other support volunteers. "One of the Crooked River Wetlands volunteers drives a golf cart that holds four people and we provide that for anyone who might have limited mobility," said Gates. Group size varies with the weather and how much ice is on the ponds. "On an average day with open water, we'll have about 15 people," Gates said. He also did a call-out to the local birding community to obtain over a dozen donated binoculars. "If we have a school group that wants to come out, we can connect them with those binoculars." The volunteers also bring four to five pairs during their regular walks in case someone doesn't have a pair.
Waterfowl and shorebirds take advantage of the ponds during migration during the spring. And even though the ducks may be easily visible from the trail, binoculars bring the birds closer.
The bird walks are just one way the volunteers contribute toward environmental programs offered at the wetlands. "The City of Prineville is very fortunate to have the volunteers we have and couldn't possibly do this without them," said Lisa Morgan, City of Prineville recorder/risk manager.
After installing the ponds and walkways, volunteers have been busy planting cottonwood and willows seedlings and other plants along a two-mile stretch of the Crooked River to provide shade, habitat, and food resources for birds, insects, and small mammals. Interpretive signage along the walkways highlights some of the aspects of wetland functions, wildlife, local geology and more.
"We have had several cities reach out to us to tour the facilities and learn more about our project," said Morgan. "We have had many inquiries across the state as well as the nation, and in fact, the City of Redmond is currently in the process of developing their wetland project similar to ours."
In addition to the volunteers, schools and college students have reached out to the City to help out. "Many of the K-12 students have participated in projects at the wetlands such as planting milkweed for the Monarch Butterfly, making birdhouses, bat dwellings and more," said Morgan. "We have also had several Eagle Scouts reach out to us to complete a project at the wetlands to earn their badges." The Eagle Scouts have erected osprey nest platforms, built the viewing decks and installed bee hotels. "This has created many future stewards of this fantastic facility for generations to come," added Morgan.