Raleigh News & Observer June 10, 2006

Creek closer to health and no longer a threat to county buildings

By Lisa Hoppenjans
Staff Writer

HILLSBOROUGH - Where water once flowed swiftly, it now runs gently between
small pools. Steep, muddy banks have been replaced by gentler, grassy
slopes, where seedlings of river birch, dogwood and tulip poplar sprout.

Stillhouse Creek has undergone a three-month, $240,000 restoration to return
a 1,200-foot section from Margaret Lane to the Eno River closer to its
natural state. The stream, which officials think was artificially
straightened at some point, now curves through county property in
Hillsborough.

County officials became concerned about the stream when erosion around two
large concrete pipes under Margaret Lane began to threaten the stability of
the roadway. The stream's path also was shifting closer to the basement of a
county office building.

"Something was going to have to be done to protect the road and building,"
said Gail Hughes, a soil conservationist for the county.

Help came through the state's Ecosystem Enhancement Program, a joint effort
of the departments of Transportation and of Environment and Natural
Resources.

When a road project or shopping development causes unavoidable damage to
streams or wetlands, the developer is often required to offset that loss by
paying for restoration elsewhere. The Ecosystem Enhancement Program uses
those payments to restore streams in the same watershed where the damage
occurs.

Perry Sugg, a project manager, said the program looks for streams in need of
restoration and oversees and pays for the projects in exchange for a
conservation easement from the landowner.

"Our ultimate goal is to have a real impact on the watershed," Sugg said.
"Stillhouse Creek by itself is not going to change a whole river basin, but
there are a lot more miles of smaller streams than there are of the Eno
River, so those are basically the conduits for a lot of the pollutants
reaching the water."

At Stillhouse Creek, waters from residential lawns, county parking lots and
the roofs of downtown buildings all carry dirt, chemicals, oil and debris
into the stream, eroding its banks. In some spots, the banks were so badly
eroded that they dropped straight down 12 feet into the stream.

"It had a tremendous amount of soil erosion along the banks of the stream,"
Hughes said.

Now, pink rocks from nearby Occoneechee Mountain form pools that slow the
water down. Sixteen varieties of grass have been planted along the banks.
Next year, Hughes said, black-eyed Susans and swamp sunflowers will be in
bloom.

Already, Hughes said, she has seen more aquatic life, one measure of a
stream's health. Minnows congregate in the newly formed pools, and crayfish
are more visible.

Eventually, the county would like to add an educational display near the
parking lot. Hughes thinks local students could study stream life in the
restored creek.