For more than 20 years, local birders and nature lovers have visited the evaporating ponds at the city's Wastewater Reclamation Facility. As the third-largest body of water in Southern Nevada, the ponds proved irresistible to a wide variety of native and migratory birds. Here in the middle of a desert, birds found an undisturbed and plentiful water source.
The Wastewater Reclamation Facility, operated to treat wastewater and meet water quality standards, uses the treated water to irrigate golf courses and highway medians or discharges the treated water into the Las Vegas Wash and Lake Mead. In performing this municipal service, the City of Henderson, without design or intent, created a habitat for birds.
Birders were delighted to find such a wide variety of birds in the Las Vegas Valley. Shorebirds and migrating birds became regular visitors to the ponds. In 1967, the water reclamation site was first included in the National Audubon Society's Christmas Count. Each year, the local chapter provided information on the number of types of birds to the National Audubon Society Headquarters in New York City. The information was used to track how well different bird species were faring. Some bird species identified were migrating to the tip of South America and back each year. The ponds were also used as a part of a nationwide shorebird survey conducted by the Point Reyes Bird Observatory in northern California.
The city welcomed the birders. They were quiet and respectful of the area. City officials even printed a brochure for the birders, with a list of species sighted at the ponds. But operating a wastewater reclamation facility and providing a habitat for birds often resulted in conflicting priorities. Maintenance of the ponds included removing vegetation surrounding the ponds, thereby eliminating resting and nesting places for the birds. Routine drainage of the ponds threatened the nesting habits of certain species. Although the people who operated the ponds enjoyed the birds, they had little knowledge about bird habits and habitat.
The city listened to the bird lovers, and in 1995 decided to take steps to formalize birding at the water reclamation facility. It was an educational experience.
The city looked at changing its maintenance routines, finding that ponds could be drained in non-nesting periods, and vegetation could be left in many areas. The birders for their part recognized the city's operational needs. As discussions continued, the idea of creating an actual preserve began to take shape and the enthusiasm soon spread.
In December 1996, the first official meeting took place between representatives of the city's Department of Utility Services, Red Rock Audubon Society and Montgomery Watson Engineers, a firm that had performed much of the facility's engineering. The group discussed their vision for a bird viewing preserve. They saw an opportunity to provide the public with a venue to see and learn about birds, and to create a bird habitat that provides naturally occurring food sources for resident, migrating and nesting birds. And they saw an equally appealing opportunity to educate preserve users on wastewater treatment and ecology.
On July 15, 1997, the Mayor and City Council approved the concept for a formal bird viewing preserve at the city's Wastewater Reclamation Facility, and ground was broken for the 80-acre public preserve on March 9, 1998. On that day, Mayor Jim Gibson declared:
"This occasion has special significance, to the people who have worked so hard toward creating this preserve, our schoolchildren and members of the community who will benefit from the preserve, and to the rest of the nation as well. This public/private partnership represents a model for other facilities throughout the nation. Only a handful of municipal facilities, particularly wastewater facilities, have designed their operations to positively support our environment."
On May 20, 1998, the City of Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve was officially dedicated and became "A Place to Call Home" for more than 270 species of birds – and thousands of bird lovers.