What was once a smelly eyesore would become a fascinating urban wetland park under a proposal by the Salt Lake City Public Utilities Department.

"It's just a bang-up, great idea, in my view," said Bob Walters, non-game biologist for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.The city's sewage treatment plant at 1365 W. 23rd North at one time plagued neighbors with "odor episodes" because of operating problems, said department director LeRoy W. Hooton Jr. People in the area resented it.

In the early 1980s, the city began working to improve the facility, initiating an extensive improvement program. About $26 million has been spent so far, and discharges are presently well within federal and state permit limits.

"The final step (in the improvement project) will provide a low-cost landscape scheme that will be a benefit to Salt Lake City," he said the 30-acre wetlands project that the city hopes to build.

Costing about $150,000 to $300,000, the project would allow treated water to circulate through an area that was a wetland, or marsh, during the Great Salt Lake's high period in recent years. Since then, the lake has receded and the wetlands are disappearing.

"During the high water of the Great Salt Lake, water backed into this 30-acre site that's adjacent to our wastewater treatment plant, and we observed a large number of ducks and birds and different species out there," he said. Plant workers became attached to the wildlife.

"It was very nice," Hooton said.

Having seen wetlands projects elsewhere, although none quite like this one, Hooton decided the department could build its own urban marsh, with natural landscaping. Small mammals and birds would be attracted to this oasis, people could tour some areas, and the wetlands would amount to yet a third level of water treatment.

By the time the water escapes into the Great Salt Lake, 10 days after it enters the wetlands, it will be naturally filtered.

Although federal standards do not allow people to have contact with water that's gone through secondary treatment, Hooton does not see that as a problem. The park will be designed to allow people to see wildlife without coming into contact with the water.

"We'll have paths . . . with educational displays that will explain what they're seeing," he said. "We just think it'll be a unique urban wetlands park that will be an attraction."

Several permits are still needed. But park planners have consulted with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, state experts, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and the City-County Health Department.

"Everyone is very excited to have such a feature in an urban setting, right off the freeway system where people can come in and see wetlands in its natural state," Hooton said.

Initially, the public will be able to see the wetlands from turnouts along 23rd North, according to a project plan released by the department. Later, paths will be built in the park but some areas will remain closed as sanctuaries for the animals.

The Division of Wildlife Resource's Walters said, "It's an excellent idea from what I know of it." This is a situation where man has built a plant to do a needed job, and then is going one step beyond, to improve the setting for wildlife, he said.

"I regard it as the city putting its best foot forward to provide some habitat," he said.

Margy Halprin of the Division of Wildlife Resources recommended that the wetlands have a diversity of plants, and that there should be enough water to keep the marsh going all year.