Story and photos by BJ Alderman

Early spring in the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch in Gilbert, the air felt warm, despite the sun intermittently hiding behind puffy clouds. My companion and I sat quietly on a bench overlooking a few feet of gently sloping bank covered in bushes and trees. From one side of our bench emerged a rabbit, while on the other, we could make out the glossy, sleek fur of a shy muskrat that skittered away as my companion gestured slightly.

This is the second of three riparian preserves established by the town. The history of these wildlife magnets is unexpected, colorful and not without problems that, fortunately, have found solutions.

Neely Ranch, the “accidental” riparian preserve

Town Councilman Scott Anderson sat at a picnic table gazing across a shallow Water Ranch pond encircled with mud flats fringed by lush vegetation coming into leaf. Hundreds of foraging shorebirds strolled in the shallows or drilled beaks into the mud. Anderson reminisced that “the schoolchildren who came here on field trips were always grossed out when I told them that the water in the pond came from their toilets.”

Anderson served as Gilbert’s planning director in the late 1980s, when Gilbert’s population was beginning to swell at about 20,000, and was still a far cry from today’s 250,000.

In 1988, residents voted to create recharge ponds that would filter treated wastewater through desert sands to replenish the water table below. Despite initial higher costs, they decided to reject the “dry well/direct injection” system of recharge.

Thus, a series of recharge ponds were created at Neely Ranch, off Cooper and Elliot roads, and the 72-acre site opened in 1990.

The Western Canal Trail runs along the north side of the 11 Neely Ranch ponds. They filled and emptied within a few days, but a significant amount of treated water was always present. Birders using the trail noticed an unusual collection of avian visitors gathering at the ponds.

Anderson’s phone began to ring off the hook with callers asking him if he knew what he had out there. He confessed that he didn’t know, but the excited birders offered him a thorough education.

The Desert Rivers Audubon Society has counted 100 bird species at Neely ponds, many of them winter visitors that had not been sighted in the area. Migrant species rare to the low desert discovered water and reasonable safety, so began to call Gilbert a much-needed stopover.

In 1994, Anderson pitched to the town the idea of creating a riparian preserve at Neely Ponds. When approval came, he applied for and received a $100,000 grant from the Arizona Heritage Fund. With the funds and the efforts of a hundred volunteers, trees and bushes were planted around the ponds’ perimeters. Scouts, Audubon members, independent birders, town staff, Rotarians and others created what became a “huge success,” according to him.

Educational signs were installed at the enhanced site and a viewing station was built at the highest point.

Because the water in the Neely ponds has been designated by the state as “secondary treated waster,” the ponds are fenced to keep people away. The early fears of the Audubon Society that the quality of the water might ultimately harm the birds vanished in a short time.

With the opening of the Neely Ranch Riparian Sanctuary, the town suddenly found itself receiving state, regional and national accolades. Anderson and Wastewater Director Mark Horn found themselves playing host to planning engineers from countries such as Australia, China, Germany, Ireland and India, who toured the site to see if it could be replicated.

The town installed an array of solar panels along Cooper Road, plus several in the ponds themselves to generate 40 percent of the electricity to run the wastewater treatment facilities. Panels in the ponds stand six feet above the water and help cut down on water evaporation, Horn said.

All the riparian preserves are surrounded by test wells to closely monitor environmental quality. At the end of last century, it was discovered that industrial waste had been illegally dumped north of the ponds sometime during the 1970s. All Neely recharge operations were severely restricted until researchers at Gilbert’s Environmental Quality Department could determine whether chemical waste was being carried away in the recharge water percolating through the sand.

From a daily discharge of 3 million gallons, the Wastewater Department had to reduce input to 800,000 gallons per day the first year. Periodic monitoring allowed the town to add 200,000 gallons more after each well-water test.

Today, Neely recharges 1.2 million gallons per day. The ponds being used provide an oasis for the birds, insects, mammals and reptiles that inhabit this area for a few days or longer.

Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch

In the late 1990s, residents embraced Anderson’s vision of a way to marry utility, nature, entertainment and education at a former cotton field east of Neely.

Using what had been learned at the earlier site, the town created a 101-acre family-oriented park enhanced with a fishing lake, picnic armadas, a dinosaur dig, gardens, a public-use observatory and play areas at Greenfield and Guadalupe roads above seven large recharge ponds.

This time, there were no chain-link fences between ponds and visitors. Instead there are benches and blinds. At Water Ranch, the recharge water has undergone a chlorination treatment for human protection. This meets the state’s Class A+ reclaimed water criteria, the highest available.

Visitors are still encouraged to stay out of the water and dried ponds around which there are riding and walking paths. Because 85 percent of park users stay within 15 percent of the Water Ranch facility, lower pond paths are not only shady but perfect for critter watching, said Anderson, who served as director of the Riparian Institute until 2013.

“People do get upset when they see a snake,” he said. The paths abound with photographers and birders with scopes and binoculars. Photography is the only approved method of capture of any creature in the preserve.

Happily unforeseen were the tourist dollars generated by visitors to Gilbert who come just for the birds at Neely and Water Ranch. Anderson still marvels at the phone calls he’d get at the Riparian Institute after a rare bird sighting was recorded on the Desert Rivers Audubon hotline.

“People from all over the world wanted me to tell them that the bird was still there; informed me they were flying in just to see it. It was amazing,” he said.

Since the creation of Water Ranch 18 years ago, its bird species count has reached 300. Recent research on the effect of increasing temperatures in the world’s deserts, including our own, indicates that huge numbers of small birds are dying of dehydration.

Gilbert’s three preserves provide acres of much-needed water and habitat cover in our little piece of the world. Ten years ago, the National Audubon Society designated Gilbert’s preserves as an “Important Bird Area” for shore birds, of all things. Apparently, when gales blow in from the Pacific Ocean and giant waves pound coastal beaches, any self-respecting shore bird migrates to Gilbert for a winter in the Valley of the Sun.

Third preserve in the making

Tentatively called Sonoqui Wash by Councilman Anderson, the South Recharge Site is surrounded by homes with a view of the San Tan Mountains.

Not many people even know that this “riparian preserve in the making” exists. Located at Higley and Ocotillo roads, “the north half of the 140-acre site was developed by taking a minimalistic approach to the design that reflects our agricultural heritage,” Horn said. “We wanted to reflect a look back to the history of tree-lined agricultural canals; the four square basins represent fields.”

The canal has been in operation for 10 years.

According to Horn, there is a “soft schedule” to develop the other half of the site in a similar fashion in the next couple of years as population increases. Just as at Water Ranch, this recharge water is classified by the state as Class A+ reclaimed water that does not require fencing.

Horn noted that after the other half of the project is developed, more vegetation will be planted at all of the ponds to provide additional critter cover and, at that time, the Town Council will decide on a name for the completed riparian preserve.

A stroll along the Sonoqui Wash canal invokes serenity, despite traffic on Higley Road. Perhaps it is the effect of negative ions from the gushing water at the head of the canal. Perhaps it is because the facility sits at the bottom of the wash that provides a psychological distance.

An initial problem that became apparent early on has been solved. It was discovered that a thick layer of clay impeded the percolation of the recharge water from the South Recharge Site. The Wastewater Department consulted with a hydrologist and a solution was found: every 70 feet in each pond, a 4-foot diameter dry well was bored to the depth of 50 feet, then filled with gravel, which allows the ponds to drain as they should. “That project ended six months ago and the recharge rates have increased exponentially,” Horn said.

Water Ranch is suitable to take out-of-town guests for a walk, a picnic or naturewatching. You may park at the lot past the Southeast Regional Library on Guadalupe Road or at the end of the library lot on Greenfield Road.
On the other hand, Neely Ranch holds interest as ponds fill around the viewing station.

Park in the far lot at the fire/police station on Cooper Road and walk up the shady path. Explore the Riparian Preserve in the making at Higley and Ocotillo roads after parking in the lot by the pumping station and taking a very short walk downhill. Bring a lawn chair, binoculars, water, and find a shady spot to call your own. Each site provides a relaxing little getaway from the urban blur of activity.

More than one visitor has blurted out: “I can’t believe you have this in the middle of the city!”

BJ Alderman is a freelance writer in Mesa and author of about 16 fiction and nonfiction books available on Kindle.