History of Arcata's Wastewater Treatment
Historical Treatment Regional Plant Wetlands & Marshes References

The Integration of Wetlands into the Wastewater Treatment Process

In the late 1960s, Dr. George Allen, a fisheries science professor at Humboldt State University, began conducting an experimental project testing the possibility of Pacific Salmon and Cutthroat Trout surviving in a mixture of reclaimed water and ocean saltwater. This study suggesting a possible alternative to the regional wastewater treatment plant. Wastewater was a resource which had not once been considered valuable. By raising fish on the water there was a possible ability to "enhancing of the receiving water."

In 1976, Dr. Robert Gearheart, an environmental engineer at Humboldt State University, examined the practicality of using wetlands as a step in naturally treating wastewater. One year later the two professors along with Frank Klopp, a Public Works director, and Mayor Dan Hauser (1974-1982), developed a proposal to counteract the regional pipeline plan. This new proposal involved transforming the Arcata Wastewater Treatment Plant into a treatment wetland dependent, environmentally benefitting facility.

Figure 3: Aleutian Geese are only some of the many species of birds that make the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary their home. Dustin Poppendieck

The Regional Water Quality Control Board approved the plan in 1979 and a three year pilot project began (EcoTipping Points, 2008). By the end of the three years the managers of the Arcata proposal were able to prove it was both environmentally and financially advantageous to implement their plan. Dr. Allen was able to simulate an environment involving ocean saltwater and reclaimed water that fish could survive in. Dr. Gearheart was able to prove that the treatment wetlands could effectively treat reclaimed water, and that utilizing enhancement marshes would enrich the surrounding habitat in addition to the recreational value. Frank Klopp determined it would cost $5 million to develop the wastewater-marsh system, half Arcata's cost for the regional plant. In addition it would only cost $500,000 annually to maintain (EcoTipping Points, 2008). After appealing to several different state agencies, Arcata got the Coastal Conservancy Agency to support a new plan based on "enhancing of the receiving water." Due to the project, involving the restoration practices of original coastal wetlands, the conservancy was able to assist in funding it.

Wetland and Marsh Success

The pilot project was a success. The design was expanded to treat all of Arcata's wastewater. Over the next 25 years, the Arcata Wastewater Treatment Plant and Wildlife Sanctuary continued be recognized as a progressive and innovative way to treat wastewater, as it enhanced the environment while benefitting the residents (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Public enjoying the rejuvenated Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary

Prior to the Arcata Wastewater Treatment Plant and Wildlife Sanctuary, the area was in poor condition. What is now known as Allen Marsh was a decaying logging deck used for lumber storage (the water still contains high levels of tannin from the old logging deck, giving this marsh it's particular tea-brown color). Gearheart Marsh was pasture land. Hauser Marsh was used as a waste area. The observation area was a landfill (now called Mount Trashmore), and Klopp Lake, was dugout from the bay to obtain the dirt needed to cover Mount Trashmore (Hull, Williams and Wilbur 1984). The three enhancement marshes, lake, and observation area now make up the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary, covering over 150 acres.

Since the creation of the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary, the landscape has changed. Plants have reclaimed the previous dumping sites, and prior "wildlife" that consisted of rats, house cats, and seagulls has been adopted by close to 200 species of birds (Figure 4), as well as many other animals. The secondary treated water now flows through the chain of constructed treatment wetlands and enhancement marshes, and after two months it is piped into the bay, often cleaner and clearer than the bay water itself (Eisenberg 1990).