Settlers began moving to the Christmas area after the conclusion of the many Seminole Wars in the late 1830s. The Army under the command of Brig. General Abraham Eustis built Fort Christmas just west of this area in 1837 near the site of the Seminole encampment, Powell’s Town. Later, the area became an open range for cattle grazing after the Civil War. In the early 1900’s, the red cedar trees were harvested for the durable wood suitable for manufacturing wood furniture, construction and fence posts. Pine trees were tapped for turpentine, and later, logged for lumber. A dairy farm was established on the Wetlands Park property in the 1940s.
The Iron Bridge Regional WRF was constructed in 1979 by the City of Orlando with a mandate from the U.S.E.P.A. to consolidate several wastewater treatment facilities and to expand the available sewer capacity in the area. However, regional facility needed more effluent disposal capacity by the mid-1980s. An innovative solution to this situation was to develop a man-made wetlands system for the reuse of the highly treated effluent from the regional treatment facility. The City of Orlando purchased 1,650 acres in 1986 at a cost of $5,128,000 near Fort Christmas for this purpose. The 1,220 acre man-made wetland treatment system was completed in July 1987 with the conversion of the former pasture areas into wetlands.
The system was designed with a hydraulic capacity of 35 million gallons a day of reclaimed wastewater. The water is conveyed through a four-foot diameter pipeline approximately 17 miles to the influent distribution structure for the wetlands. Seventeen cells and three distinct wetland communities were created to remove residual amounts of nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, from the reclaimed water. The ecological communities include deep marsh areas, mixed marsh and wet prairie and hardwood – cypress swamps. The site planted with 2.3 million aquatic plants, including 200,000 trees, to create the man-made wetlands. A lake is contained within one of the cells.
The reclaimed water begins its 40-day journey through the Wetlands Park at the influent distribution structure, which is located near the western most edge of the property, just north of Wheeler Road, and in close proximity to the Influent Observation Deck. The reclaimed water meanders through the various habitats and eventually arrives at the two outfall structures for the wetland system. The flow leaves the Orlando Wetlands Park via a canal and flows into the St Johns River.
The function of the influent structure is to distribute the reclaimed water among the three flow paths through the wetland system. The reclaimed water flows first into the cells with the deep marsh habitat, which consists primarily of monocultures with either cattails or giant bulrush. Afterwards, the flow is routed through the mixed marsh and wet prairie cells containing thick growths of pickerelweed, duck potato and other aquatic shrubs. These areas are favored by the wading birds and migratory waterfowl. The final habitat in the wetland system is the hardwood swamp. Cypress, pop ash, tupelo and water hickories dominate within these cells. However, due to the constant high water levels, the trees have stunted growth and this habitat typically mirrors the deep marsh areas. A 100 acre lake is part of the central and southern flow paths through the wetland system.
The outflow is sampled every day and the results are reported to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the St. Johns River Water Management District. On average, the wetland system removes about 64% of the total nitrogen and approximately 74% of the total phosphorus in the reclaimed water. The wetlands outflow remains consistently lower than the background levels of phosphorus that are found in the St Johns River.
The open waters of the lake and marshes attract wintering waterfowl, including blue-winged teal, green-winged teal, common moorhens and American coots. Wood storks, white ibis, black-crowned night herons, and other wading birds are common during the cooler months. Bald eagles, limpkins, and red-shouldered hawks, black vultures, and turkey vultures are year round residents in the Orlando Wetlands Park. Raccoons, river otters, white-tailed deer and bobcats can be seen along the roads and hiking trails. The Orlando Wetlands is home to over 30 species of wildlife that are listed on the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Threatened and Endangered Wildlife list.
In the 1990s, the Orlando Wetlands Park was opened for public use between the months of February through November. Originally the City granted exclusive family rights to the area until 2038 as part of the purchase agreement with the landowners. However, the City purchased these rights in 2015 and the Park is now open year round from sunrise to sunset. In 2000, the Orlando Wetlands Park began hosting an annual Wetlands Festival. It is now held every other year on the third Saturday in February.
To learn more about the Park, please visit the following websites:
Constructed Wetlands for Wastewater Treatment and Wildlife Habitat