Friday, February 21, 2014

Status of Sweetwater Wetlands and Roger Road Ponds

--Kendall Kroesen, Urban Program Manager

Tucson Audubon has received many questions about the current status of Sweetwater Wetlands and the Roger Road Ponds. Both have been affected by the closure of the Roger Road Wastewater Reclamation Facility. Here are updates on both.


The Roger Road Ponds and Sweetwater Wetlands have long been important birding sites for Tucsonans and visitors.

The Roger Road Ponds (eBird species list totals 251) have been present for decades and were originally part of the treatment of wastewater at the Roger Road facility, which is a Pima County facility. Later they were maintained as ponds because of interest from the birding community. In recent years they have been open to the public on weekdays when the security entrance to the facility was staffed.

Across the street to the south is Sweetwater Wetlands (eBird species list 288). The wetlands are much bigger than the Roger Road Ponds and were created both to treat water and to create habitat. They were built by Tucson Water as part of the processing of effluent from the Roger Road plant to the higher level of purity necessary for use in Tucson's reclaimed water system.

Status of Roger Road Ponds
Entrance to the Roger Road plant & ponds currently closed
Vegetation around Roger Road Ponds, and a bit of open
water, visible from Sweetwater Drive

The Roger Road wastewater facility stopped operating on January 8, 2014 because a new, modern wastewater facility has now taken its place. The new "Agua Nueva" facility is located just north of the old Roger Road plant. Water is now being piped to the Roger Road Ponds from the Agua Nueva facility in order to maintain the water level. However, through approximately early summer of 2014 the old plant will be undergoing cleaning and decommissioning. This involves activities that the wastewater department has deemed to be potentially dangerous to the public, so the facility--including the ponds--is closed to visitors at this time.

Some of the vegetation around the ponds, and glimpses of the ponds themselves, are still visible from Sweetwater Drive.

When the decommissioning is finished, the wastewater department will consider how to reopen the ponds to the public. Since no wastewater operations will be taking place on site, no wastewater personnel will be there to monitor the public's use of the property that contains the ponds. So the logistics of opening it to the public are undecided.

In the longer run the wastewater department is working with other county agencies, including Pima County Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation Department, on a plan to make the southern part of the Roger Road plant site a park. The ponds would remain a part of this park and there would be parking there for the linear trail along the Santa Cruz River and potentially additional parking for Sweetwater Wetlands. Tucson Audubon has advocated for making this area a park focusing on wildlife and wildlife watching.

Status of Sweetwater Wetlands

Intake stream at Sweetwater Wetlands, dry at this time
Tucson Water have pledged to continue operating the wetlands even though effluent from the new Agua Nueva facility may meet the water quality standards for the reclaimed water system. However, at the present time water flow from the Roger Road facility has stopped and water flow from the Agua Nueva facility has not yet begun. Therefore, the water level in the ponds at Sweetwater Wetlands has been declining.

New pipes are in place and the concrete is curing. Water is expected to begin flowing again to the wetlands by early to mid March. Photos shown here, taken on February 11, show that there was a reasonable amount of water remaining at that time. It may be that new flows will start before ponds dry up completely.

Sweetwater Wetlands Annual Controlled Burn

One of the ponds at Sweetwater on
February 11--down but not dry
Sweetwater Wetlands will be closed Tuesday March 4 for the annual controlled burn. Every year about 1/3 of the wetlands vegetation is dried and burned with help from Tucson Fire Department. This clears thick growth of reeds and cattails and helps maintain open water areas and reduce potential for mosquito breeding.

New Sweetwater Wetlands parking lot under construction 
New Parking at Sweetwater Wetlands

A new parking lot is being build north of Sweetwater Drive, immediately across the street from the old Sweetwater Wetlands parking. This should minimize or eliminate the need for overflow parking from the old lot to park along Sweetwater Drive.

The new parking lot may be ready for use by the end of March or so.


  1. I'm so glad to have this update! So many people have been asking me about it and I have been asking others myself. Sweetwater is such a Tucson treasure and is world renowned as a Birding Hotspot! I only recently started birding Roger Road and would be very pleased to see it become a public park.


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