MILLERSBURG — We are gathered March 23 in the parking lot at Simpson Park ready to walk the trails of the adjacent Talking Water Gardens.
I had sent out an email invitation for the nature walk three days earlier to fellow employees at the Democrat-Herald, and the response is good. Eleven staff members turn out for the noontime Friday walk. Seven have never been here.
Joining us from the city of Albany is Tom TenPas, who is in charge of Talking Water Gardens, an engineered wetland.
He speaks enthusiastically about the place, as we pepper him with questions.
How many acres? 50.
How much did it cost? About $14 million.
Give us an example of the wildlife found here? Mink.
“Mink have a similar habitat to an otter,” TenPas says. “They swim like an otter, but don’t play as much as an otter. They actually have burrows in the sides of the berms.”
Snow remains on the ground from the storm that ended the day before, and the temperature is in the low 40s.
It’s cold, and Editor Hasso Hering is itching to start.
“Are we here to walk?” he asks rhetorically.
Our amble along on the finely graveled and wood- chipped paths begins.
We get about 50 yards, and Don Boucher stops to set up his spotting scope.
Boucher is a graphic designer for Mid-Valley Newspapers, co-editor of the Neighborhood Naturalist newsletter and a regular contributor to Oregon Outdoors.
What appear to some of us to be ducks are actually coots — dark gray birds with black heads, he informs us.
During the next hour, Boucher identifies 23 other species of birds.
Where mills once stood
This new wetland, featuring waterfalls, dozens of native plants and more than two miles of recreational pathways, didn’t look so attractive just a few years ago.
Once the site of the Edwards Lumber Mill and Simpson Timber Mill, in fairly recent times a chunk of it was a graveled parking lot for commercial trucks.
The vision for a wetland on the site stems from a 2006 state Department of Environmental Quality mandate. It set new limits on the total maximun daily loads for wastewater being discharged into the Willamette River. The treated water from the Albany-Millersburg Water Reclamation Facility didn’t meet the new standards.
In response, the cities of Albany and Millersburg partnered with nearby metals manufacturer ATI Wah Chang to create the first public-private engineering project of its kind in the United States.
The engineered wetland, designed by CH2M Hill and built by CNM Construction, provides an additional layer of treatment intended to lower river temperatures and remove more pollutants before the treated water goes into the Willamette.
Groundbreaking started in February 2010 and the project was completed July 5, 2011.
Treated wastewater from the nearby Albany-Millersburg Water Reclamation Facility and Wah Chang is piped to a hill on the north side of Talking Water Gardens, where some of it enters the wetland on a waterfall. Other entry points are a “spring” on the north side and the major waterfall on the south side. The treated water circulates for two days before it reaches the log pond near the center and lowest point of the wetland. From there, it flows west through pipes to the nearby Willamette River.
Talking Water gets its name from the sound of water flowing over the waterfalls, designed by landscape architect Hoichi Kurisu. He also designed the Healing Garden at Samaritan Lebanon Community Hospital and was curator of the Portland Japanese Garden from 1968-72.
“He personally supervised the placement of every rock (at Talking Water),” TenPas said.
TenPas spends much of his day doing testing at the lab in the water reclamation facility, but his favorite part of the job is being at Talking Water Gardens.
“I really enjoy it,” he says. “It’s an amazing facility. ... It’s a perfect integration — a water treatment facility and a park-like setting.”
TenPas estimates that he and Heather Slocum, outreach coordinator for the wetland who works with colleges and schools and leads field trips, have given tours to more than 1,000 people over the past year, and many more are planned.
Our noontime walk continues.
TenPas shows a remnant of the Simpson mill — a concrete pad near what used to be the loading dock. Above the pad are a row of six more waterfalls that Kurisu created with cinderblocks and aluminum beams. The waterfalls haven’t been turned on yet. TenPas is waiting until plants are more established and then, he says, “I’ll have it on all the time.”
Before we return to the parking lot, everyone takes turns looking through Boucher’s spotting scope, first at a Northern flicker woodpecker in a tree and then at a cormorant on a piling in nearby Simpson Park’s First Lake that separates the wetland from the river.
“We get more birds in the winter,” Boucher says. “You come out in the summer and you won’t see nearly as many.”
Before we head back to work, I ask a few of my colleagues what they think of Talking Water Gardens.
“I saw it when it was nothing before they started the work,” says reporter Cathy Ingalls, who covers the city of Albany. “I can’t believe it. It deserves every accolade it’s ever gotten.”
DH advertising consulant Monica Hampton plans to come back later in the summer. “I love it,” she says.
“I’ve never been out, and I plan to come back many times,” adds Scott Blair, online/inside sales supervisor. “It’s wonderful out here.”