By Aaron West • The Bulletin

Plenty of people in Central Oregon are participating in Earth Day activities this week, but only the city of Prineville celebrated by moving 400,000 tons of dirt to create an educational nature trail that meanders around a series of environmentally friendly, sewage-filtering ponds.

Nearly a year to the day after the city broke ground on its long-planned wetland project, the 120-acre aquatic ecosystem that doubles as a municipal wastewater-treatment facility is complete. And even though the $7.7 million project has been partially operational as a treatment plant since late last year, City Engineer Eric Klann said the riverside facility is now open for the public to explore.

“It’s been a long time coming; we’ve been doing research and design for over eight years,” he said. “As an engineer it’s not hard to get excited about a wastewater treatment plant, but I’m happy to say this is a system that the public can get excited about, too.”

The new wetland expands on the city’s older facility — a series of lagoons that filter wastewater later used for irrigation. The new facility is expected to meet the city’s needs for the next 30 years, when the population of Prineville will go from 9,500 people to about 23,000 people.

For folks who are doubtful that they can get a kick out of a multilevel system of 15 environmentally friendly wastewater-treatment ponds, then a ceremony scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday aims to convince them otherwise. That’s when Prineville officials and local students will show off the 13 informational kiosks and 5.5 miles of trails a Vancouver-based contractor has been busy prepping since last year.

Klann said the 400,000 tons of dirt were moved to create the ponds and trails, which were then enhanced with kiosks that students packed with information about the wetland ecosystem.

Now that the educational and recreational features are finished, people can walk the wetland trails while learning about local birds, the Crooked River watershed and the macroinvertebrates — flatworms, crawfish, snails and aquatic insects such as dragonflies — that call the ecosystem home.

“We’ve been working on these kiosks with local school groups over the last couple years,” Klann said. “The different classes will be there (today) explaining the kiosks they helped design.”

And the amenities are worth more than what they offer for exercise and information, Klann added. Without these educational elements, the city wouldn’t have qualified for some of the grants that funded about half the project. It was the $3 million in grants from various agencies and groups that made the wetland system possible, Klann said.

And considering the city’s wastewater-treatment alternatives, that’s a positive thing.

The city opted to move forward with the wetland wastewater system — officially called the Crooked River Wetlands Complex — to avoid having to build a new mechanical treatment plant a decade ago, which Klann said would have cost more than $60 million.

“By utilizing and constructing the wetland, it dropped the price way down,” he said, noting that there were other benefits, too.

For example, the wetland system is expandable, Klann said. New ponds can be dug to keep up with Prineville’s population growth. Also, the system is safer for the environment than a traditional plant. The multilevel ponds use gravity and a series of mechanical gates to transport wastewater, Klann explained, filtering it with bacteria and aerators along the way.

The process takes a long time, but eventually some of the water is returned to the Crooked River and some is used for irrigation. The city’s Meadow Lakes Golf Course keeps its fairways green this way, billing itself as not only a fully functional 18-hole championship course but also a wastewater disposal site. The water hazards are part of the treatment process.

“In the summer, that water is needed,” Klann said. “It’s a fairly unique process.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7829,