Tres Rios Wetlands transforms desert, revitalizes environment

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Water is scarce here in the desert, but a Valley oasis near 91st Avenue and Broadway is preserving the environment and turning the arid land into wetlands.

Tres Rios Wetlands is a constructed wetland complex for wastewater treatment, and it sprawls across more than 300 acres of the city. The name speaks for itself, as the wetlands are an area where three of Arizona's rivers — the Salt, Gila and Aqua Fria — come together.

The facility is divided into two segments. There is a 300-acre water treatment and wildlife refuge segment, where the facility uses a natural process to treat Valley water and save money. There is also a 200-acre environmental education area where the public can learn about preservation and water processes up close.

"To do the treatment with the conventional treatment of concrete and steel, you'd be looking at about $3 billion, to do the same treatment the environment can do naturally," Ron Elkins, the City of Phoenix Water Services Department Wetlands process control specialist, said.

The wetlands have also revitalized the environment and provided a habitat for animals, including over 150 species of birds. Though the site was not designed to be a wildlife refuge, birds migrating to warmer weathers have found a temporary home in the desert oasis.

"We thought that it would be very good for the environment, but we didn't understand the impact, it has far exceeded our expectations," Elkins said.

The Tres Rios Wetlands project began in 1994 as an alternative water treatment option. The facility was designed with goals like flood control, habitat restoration and development, water reuse, carbon footprint offset, and public outreach and education.

The environmental restoration portion of the Tres Rios Wetlands, between 105th Avenue and El Mirage Road, is open to the public through request. For more information about the project, or to request access to the wetlands, visit