Wetlands park project moving forward

Chad Frey
A wetlands created during a bank restoration project on Sand Creek has been closed to the public, despite becoming a birding hotspot. That could change, with the city approving a move forward to create a park using private funds.

A new park is about to be created in Newton — a park dedicated to birdwatching in a set of wetlands created more than 10 years ago during a project to rejuvenate the banks of Sand Creek.

There is a kind of secret spot where 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.

The 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.

Currently the wetlands, located near S.W. 14th Street, are not open to the public. Birders stand on public streets and rights of way when observing birds in the wetlands.

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.

The starting plan is to construct boardwalks over the course of two years to allow access for birders to the site. Those boardwalks would be designed to keep people out of, or from touching, water that can be contaminated by raw sewage.

The city commission approved a memorandum of understanding Tuesday between the city, the R. Michael Rhoades Foundation and the Kansas Alliance for Wetlands & Streams Inc.

The R. Michael Rhoades Foundation has stepped up to be a major funding partner with the seed money of $100,000 for the facility. The project is expected to cost about $350,000, with the bulk of those costs being paid from private funds. The city will help with in-kind maintenance staff and equipment assistance, tree removal and coordination of regulatory agencies.

KAWS has been instrumental in putting the project together and pulling together multiple other private funding partners, such as Ducks Unlimited, Walmart Community Grants, Cargill Cares Foundation, Evergy, Newton Lions Club and the NextEra Foundation. Additional funding continues to be solicited by KAWS for the initial project and future phases.

In other business, the commission:

• Reviewed the refinancing of two sets of bonds, lower interest rates and not terms on the bonds. The city will save about $626,000 in interest on those bonds. This year the city has refunded several bonds and saved more than $1.2 million in interest over the life of the bonds refunded. According to bond council, the city will save about $170,000 annually from the reduced interest rates.

• Approved a mural project for the railroad park in downtown Newton.

• Made an extra principal payment to KDHE on a loan used to renovate the sewage treatment plan. The city is planning to pay off the loan about 10 years early.

• Approved an engineering agreement for a project to restore pavement on K-15 highway from US-50 on the south to Old 81 highway on the north. The total project is estimated to cost $542,216. The state will contribute $300,000 and the balance of the construction and all of the preliminary engineering will be the responsibility of the city. The city will plan to bond the project in 2023 following construction. Debt service payments will be paid from the general obligation debt service fund.

• Established an external agency review committee.

• Established a school speed zone from Anderson to Boyd on 12th Street and crosswalks on W. 12th Street.

• Approved a request for bids for paining hangars C and D at the Newton City/County Airport.

• Received plans and specifications for the paving of Wheatridge and Paddington, south of Arby’s. The project is cost-shared with the Kansas Department of Transportation. The state will pay about $2 million for the project, while the city will pay about $1.7 million. The project will bid following the completion of plans and specifications.

• Reviewed the operating agreement with Kemper Sports for the Meridian Center. The commission voted to have staff investigate the city taking over the management of the center.