Video above: At the Ocala Wetland Recharge Park, the city’s water resources conservation coordinator, Rachel Slocumb, discusses the accommodations for visitors. (Mikayla Carroll/WUFT News)
After more than two years of challenging development, the Ocala Wetland Recharge Park has drawn in about 200 visitors a day since opening in September.
The serene bodies of water they see upon entering the 60-acre park are actually treated wastewater flowing from facilities in Ocala. Three million gallons of such wastewater are sent to the park each day, with plants and microorganisms helping to “recharge” it all back into the Upper Floridian Aquifer – the primary supply of drinking water for most of north central Florida.
However, the park is still facing an inconvenient, though anticipated, hurdle: land subsidence.
Subsidence, or the caving in of the ground, is a natural result of pumping millions of gallons of water onto Florida’s “karst topography” made of limestone and sand.
“We definitely anticipated these holes opening up over time,” said Rachel Slocumb, Ocala’s water resources conservation coordinator. “What’s happening is all of that weight is creating those cavities that happen naturally in limestone.”
The park was temporarily closed a day and a half recently so work crews could repair a subsidence, caused in part by rainfall, Slocumb said.
These are not new occurrences, as holes have many times challenged the opening process.
A former golf course, the land was already piped for reuse water, making it an ideal location for the park, Slocumb said. Water conservation was a primary goal.
“If we’re able to give back some of the water that we’re using directly back into the aquifer, it will help offset some of our draw or our consumption every day,” she said.
More than half of the $10 million project was funded through grant money, Slocumb said. The city’s water resources department and residential utility bills paid for the rest of it, she said.
The conservation coordinator also said that treating wetlands are more cost effective than upgrading a traditional treatment plant.
“Besides hiccups, we’re really excited that it’s open,” she said.
In addition to replenishing the aquifer, the recharge park serves as a habitat for native wildlife and is quickly drawing in new species. Located just a five-minute drive from I-75, the recharge park brings in visitors from surrounding areas.
Several Ocala residents expressed great appreciation for the new park during recent visits.
Barbara Schwartz, the conservation chair of the Marion Audubon Society, said she visits at least once a week for bird watching.
“It’s amazing how many species are out there,” Schwartz said.
One of the park’s greatest features is the snag trees – decomposing ones that offer habitats and food sources for cavity-dwelling animals – she said.
Another society member, Josie Muncy, 71, stops by at least twice a week to birdwatch. Every time, she sees at least 30 different species.
“It’s meant to be a native, natural habitat,” Muncy said. “That’s the key about it.”
Muncy said it’s also an opportunity to escape the indoors during the pandemic.
“It gets people out of their home, so they’re not trapped,” she said. “You can walk around there, and it will give you a peaceful feeling.”
Rose Derkay, 61, was also pleased to have a wetland park close by. Derkay previously had to drive almost an hour to Sweetwater Wetlands Park in Gainesville. Now she can spend that time taking picturesque walks and practicing photography.
“I just drive a few minutes and I’m at this beautiful, other-worldly place,” she said.
Manal Fakhoury, 60, visited the park, per Derkay’s suggestion, to celebrate her birthday.
“I’m just so in awe of how beautiful this is,” Fakhoury said as she gazed at the landscape.
While admiring the scenery, visitors can also find multiple kiosks offering information about the park’s functions and the native plants and wildlife. However, the park is preparing to close for a few days in mid-February to add four new educational exhibits, Slocumb said.
One of them is expected to be a non-point source pollution maze in which visitors can learn what pollution is, where it comes from and what can be done to reduce it, she said.
Non-point source pollution is “any kind of pollution that you can’t choose a definitive source from,” Slocumb said. The interactive maze will show how something as simple as runoff from vehicles, septic tanks or fertilizer can be typical examples.
“They’re things that we do as humans – as residents of the earth – that contribute to pollution that we might not think about,” she said.
Also planned is an above-ground tunnel showcasing microorganisms living below the water line. It will show why they matter to the ecosystem and how water treatment affects nutrients.
Slocumb said the exhibits will also emphasize water conservation.
“It’s all about making small, conscious decisions about the impact that we make in the environment, and what we can do to make a little bit less of that,” she said.