Courtesy of Fort Christmas Historical Park
The area of land which was to become the Orlando Wetlands Park was historically a wet prairie and a part of the St. Johns River floodplain. Settlers began moving to the Christmas area during the Second Seminole War in the late 1830s. In 1837, the Army, under the command of Brig. General Abraham Eustis built Fort Christmas. After the Civil War, settlers began to drain the wet prairie for agricultural purposes. The area became an open range for cattle grazing and in the early 1900s, red cedar trees were harvested for their durable wood suitable furniture, fence posts and general construction. Pine trees were also tapped for turpentine and logged for lumber. In the 1940s, a dairy farm was established on what is now the Wetlands Park property.
The Iron Bridge Regional Water Reclamation Facility (Iron Bridge) was constructed in 1979 by the City of Orlando with a mandate from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to consolidate several wastewater treatment facilities and to expand the available sewer capacity in the area. Iron Bridge first discharged their treated effluent to the Little Econlockhatchee River and for public reuse. However, with the influx of development and the resultant increase in wastewater volume, Iron Bridge needed to expand its effluent disposal capacity by the min-1980s. An innovative solution to this situation was to develop a man-made wetland system for advanced treatment of the highly treated effluent, also known as reclaimed water. In 1986, the City of Orlando purchased 1,650 acres near Fort Christmas for a cost of $5,128,000 for this very purpose. By July of 1987, 1,220 acres of former pasture land was converted to a man-made wetland treatment system.
The system was designed with a hydraulic capacity to receive up to 35 million gallons a day of reclaimed water. The water is pumped from Iron Bridge through a four-foot diameter pipeline for approximately seventeen miles to the wetlands influent distribution structure. The wetlands were designed with seventeen cells (now eighteen) and three distinct wetland communities for removing residual amounts of nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, from the reclaimed water. The ecological communities include deep and mixed marshes along with a hardwood-cypress swamp. The site was planted with 2.3 million wetland plants including 200,000 trees. A borrow-pit lake is contained within one of the cells.
The constructed wetland is formally known as the Orlando Easterly Wetlands but has come to be known to the public as the Orlando Wetlands Park.
The reclaimed water begins its 30 to 40 day journey through the Wetlands Park at the influent distribution structure, which is located at the southwestern edge of the property, just north of Wheeler Road. The reclaimed water flows in a broad sheet through the various marshes and swamp and eventually arrives at two outfall structures. The flow leaves the Orlando Wetlands Park via a canal and into the St. Johns River.
The influent distribution structure separates the reclaimed water into three flow paths through the wetland system. All flow paths first go through deep marsh consisting primarily of cattails and giant bulrush. Flow is then routed through mixed marsh containing pickerelweed, duck potato and other emergent aquatic plants, along with submerged aquatic plants such as southern naiad and Illinois pondweed. Finally, the water flows through a hardwood swamp where cypress, pop ash and water hickory dominate. However, due to the constant high water levels, the trees have stunted growth. A 100-acre lake is part of the central and southern flow paths through the wetlands system.
Three vegetative communities make up the wetlands: deep marsh, mixed marsh, and hardwood swamp.
Once the water completes its journey through the wetlands, it is sampled every day and results are reported to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the St. Johns River Water Management District. Phosphorus levels from the Wetlands Park outflow are on average lower than the St. Johns River. Visit our water quality page for detailed information and data.
The open waters mixed marsh and lake attract many year-round and migratory birds to the Wetlands Park. Over 230 bird species have been documented including blue-winged teal, green-winged teal, black-bellied whistling duck, roseate spoonbill, black-crowned night heron, American bittern, wood stork, sandhill crane, bald eagle and more. Some common year-round residents include great-blue heron, red-shouldered hawk, osprey, common gallinule and coot. Raccoon, river otter, white-tailed deer, bobcat and alligator can occasionally be seen along the roads and hiking trails. The Wetlands Park is home to over eighteen species of wildlife that are federally or state listed as threatened, endangered or protected.
In the 1990s, the Orlando Wetlands Park was opened to the public for passive recreational use. When the City of Orlando first purchased the property, the original land owners retained hunting rights from February through November. Therefore, the Park was closed to the public during these months year after year until the City of Orlando purchased these rights in 2015. Since then the Park has been open year-round to the public.
In 2000, the Orlando Wetlands Park began hosting an annual Wetlands Festival. The Festival strives to educate and engage the community in environmental issues and increase public awareness about the function of the Wetlands Park. The Festival is now held every other year on the third Saturday in February. Visit our Wetlands Festival page for more information.