MULBERRY — Standing atop a berm, visitors to Se7en Wetlands Park on Monday saw a great white egret feeding along a lake’s shoreline as a large alligator slid past in the water about 15 yards away. A kingfisher swooped through a strong breeze and an anhinga dried its wings as it sat on a dead tree. All this as black and white wood storks nested in a rookery on a nearby island under dark blue storm clouds.
Although it all looks like a virgin wilderness preserve, Se7en Wetlands is a 1,600-acre water-treatment area where the city of Lakeland’s already-treated wastewater has been sent for three decades for further treatment. The water meanders through seven retention areas, cleaning the water even more before it is sent to the Alafia River or used as cooling water at Tampa Electric Co.’s Polk Power Station.
“I think it’s a testament to how well we clean up the water and how it can support something like this,” said Julie Vogel an environmental-program specialist with Lakeland’s water utilities department.
Lakeland bought the land, which is in Mulberry, from a phosphate company in the 1980s and created the series of retention wetlands. The land drops incrementally 80 feet from holding area No. 1, adjacent to Eaglebrook golf course, to holding area No. 7, close to State Road 60. Water-distribution ditches line the top parts of each area, with openings every 100 feet gently pouring the water into the next retention wetland. Se7en Wetlands is connected to the Tampa Bay estuary via the Alafia River.
On April 14, paths around and through two of the areas are set to open to the public. The Audubon Society will take hikers through the wetlands to see the park’s flora and fauna, while a professional photographer will take nature photographers to some of the more picturesque spots in the park. Vendors will be on hand, with free giveaways for visitors.
Vogel said visitors should expect to see nesting wood storks, a threatened species, along with an array of herons, egrets, hawks and ibises. Deer live in the park, as do alligators, gopher turtles and snakes. Wild hogs were spotted crossing a road Monday.
Vogel cautions that this isn’t necessarily an easy saunter for the youngest or elderly members of the family – it is a wild area meant for those who can walk several miles.
"We are very wilderness,” Vogel said. “Wear closed-toe shoes, a hat, sunscreen and bring water. If you’re coming to Se7en Wetlands, expect to be walking and take everything back out with you when you leave.”
Dirt and grass-covered roads line the tops of berms, along with paths through the wetlands. In addition, a 600-foot boardwalk is planned to cross the second wetland area, connecting to a sand scrub. Visitors will be able to access the trails via Loyce Harp Park off Carter Road and the Lakeland Highlands Scrub Park, 551 acres of untouched habitat at the southern dead end of Lakeland Highlands Road.
"It'll connect a lot of the recreational lands in Polk County and provide more of a chance for people to get outdoors," said Tom Palmer, chairman of the local Sierra Club group.
Shade pavilions are planned throughout the park. Permanent restrooms are already in place in Loyce Harp Park and near the entrance from Lakeland Highlands Scrub.
Vogel spoke as Lakeland’s treated wastewater poured down a waterfall, helping to aerate the water, which is good for plants and fish alike. There was only a hint of chlorine smell to the water, with a breeze carrying fresh air from nearby trees.
“We get great water quality, plus habitat and wildlife,” Vogel said.
See video of the park at https://youtu.be/OgbW2pt6Y6k
Kimberly C. Moore can be reached at email@example.com or 863-802-7514.