There is a kind of secret spot bird-watchers have been going to see unique species in Newton — they have documented more than 147 bird species, including five species of geese, 17 species of ducks, six herons, 12 hawks/falcons (including Bald Eagle and Peregrine Falcon), and 14 species of shorebirds that make use of the pond birdwatchers have been trying to get too — and wanting better access to.
"It is the No. 3 spot in Harvey County for species diversity," said Libby Albers, with the Kansas Alliance of Wetlands and Streams. "It is second only to East and West Lakes. It is a great hotspot that has developed over the last 10 years."
That pond is man-made, created as part of the Sand Creek Bank Stabilization project in 2009, and it can have raw sewage in it at times of high flows through the wastewater treatment plant.
"Because during periods of high flows at the wastewater treatment plant this receives raw sewage, we can't allow the public to have access to this wetland," said Suzanne Loomis, director of public works for the city of Newton. "(Kansas Department of Health and Environment) does not want anyone touching anything that has raw sewage in it, as you can understand."
Birding is difficult as a result.
"They stand on the periphery or they get special permission to be on the property to do bird counts," Albers said.
This isn't unique to Newton — other communities have seen birds gather at similar places.
"Sewage treatment ponds have become a real boon to bird-watchers, especially on the western half of the country," said Chuck Otte, Geary County K-State Extension agent, birder and manager of the Kansas Bird Listserv. "Those wetlands were, a lot of times, not intended for bird habitat but it is a wonderful happenstance that it is good habitat. More and more entities that create these kinds of habitats are making them more accessible to birders. For a long time it was 'don't go near our sewage ponds,' now it is more like 'please, come, go bird-watching.' "
Currently the Newton wetlands are not open to the public, but that could change.
"In 2015 we were contacted by bird-watchers because they were interested in access because they were seeing all kinds of bird species that were there," Loomis said. "When we have done bird counts here in the past, they exceeded more than 145 different bird species — 153 at the last count."
This year, the Kansas Alliance of Wetlands and Streams is pulling together several groups and working with the city to provide access, albeit with fencing around areas like the sewage pond to keep people out of sensitive areas. That access could come in the form of a parking lot, fencing around the ponds, observation decks and boardwalks to those decks. An additional freshwater pond is also possible.
Ducks Unlimited, Evergy and a local foundation have been part of the discussion as well.
"I believe we will get to the point, if we are not already, of 100% private funds for this project," Loomis said. "There are probably more than 100 bird-watchers in Harvey County who would see this as a lovely addition to our facilities open to the public in Harvey County."
"That is excellent, it is wonderful to see these kind of things happening," Otte said.
Loomis anticipates presenting a memorandum of understanding to the commission at the next meeting of the commission, scheduled for Jan. 28. At that time it is possible expenses for the city — operation and maintenance costs after construction — might be available once the scope of the project is known.
"Typically for a park like this, it may only be open during certain hours. We may want to put a gate on it, and we would have staff to open and close the area," Loomis said. "We may put some lighting in there. ... The parking lot would be paved and there would be maintenance. The pathways, we are looking at boardwalks that go in over a wetlands. ... We would replace boards over time."
KAWS anticipates applying for grants, seeking out in-kind donations and partnering with multiple entities to try and bring the project to fruition.
"One of the cool things is you have this issue, all of these birds have come in and people see it as 'fantastic, look at all the birds.' Instead of our community saying 'no, you have no access,' it is exciting to see there is a need and want and we are looking at making it more accessible to more people," Albers said. "And we are doing it all with non-city dollars."