SAN BENITO — Along swaths of grassy wetlands, George Ferguson’s binoculars scanned across one of the area’s best hidden birding havens.
For more than 10 years, city officials worked to turn 12 old sewer ponds into a 40-acre wildlife sanctuary as part of a model state project.
On the city’s map, the sprawling wetlands offer a destination for birders and eco-tourists, City Commissioner Rene Garcia said Wednesday.
Meanwhile, other projects are in the works.
“We have a lot of potential for eco-tourism,” Garcia said.
On Wednesday, the BirdsEye Bird Finding Guide led Ferguson and his wife Susan to the wetlands off Line 20 Road near Williams Road.
“People see a lot of birds here so we came out here,” Ferguson, who lives in Hilton Head Island, S.C. after a career in computer work, said as he and his wife stood on the grassy banks. “There are a lot of birding sightings.”
In 2018, city officials completed construction of a 13-foot by 13-foot observation deck along with the renovation of two old wooden piers running more than 200 feet along the glassy wetlands.
Meanwhile, a walking trail winds along four ponds.
“We need to upgrade it more so we can have eco-tourism out there,” Mayor Rick Guerra said, referring to the wildlife refuge. “We need to do a lot of work on it so we can make it more attractive.”
Caracara Trails project
In Brownsville, the Caracara Trails project’s planning to connect San Benito’s Heavin-Resaca Trail to Harlingen’s Hike and Bike Trail, Eva Garcia, a planner with the Rio Grande Valley Metropolitan Planning Organization, said.
Now, Harlingen officials are using a grant to fund a feasibility study into the project, she said.
“It’s definitely coming to reality,” she said.
As part of the Caracara Trails project, the plan to link San Benito to Harlingen is one of six projects along a proposed 428-mile trail system aimed at connecting the Rio Grande Valley, Brownsville City Commissioner Dr. Ruth Gowen said.
“They’re trying to connect Brownsville and Laguna Vista and San Benito and Harlingen,” Guerra said, referring to Cameron County projects.
San Benito, Harlingen connection
Meanwhile, Rene Garcia proposed a project connecting San Benito’s wetlands to Harlingen’s Hugh Ramsey Nature Park along the Arroyo Colorado.
Along Harlingen’s southeastern edge, the park running along the arroyo’s banks is part of the World Birding Center.
“I’d like to see eco-tourism expand this way,” he said.
In San Benito, the wetlands help clean agricultural runoff discharged into the Arroyo Colorado, the General Land Office states on its website.
The project has restored the ponds to “utilize them to water and treat nearby agricultural runoff before entering the Arroyo Colorado,” the website states.
“Evaporation and utilization by vegetation will reduce the amount of water impacting the seagrass ecosystem in Laguna Madre.”
Wetlands help remove nitrogen and phosphorus that can spark algal blooms that create low-dissolved oxygen, which can lead to fish kills.
The project stems from the city’s response to a hefty fine.
In 2005, the state fined the city about $3 million for discharging inadequately treated sewer water into the Arroyo Colorado, officials said.
As part of an agreement, the state agreed to waive payment on the condition the city complete the project, turning its old sewer ponds into wetlands.