Raleigh News & Observer Aug 7, 2005

Hope for urban creek springs from state plan

By Nikole Hannah-Jones
Staff Writer

DURHAM -- When William Dewberry looks at the waters swirling around the discarded tennis shoes, mangled shopping cart and crinkled beer cans in Goose Creek, the longtime East Durham resident sees the past -- about 40 years ago, when people used to catch crawfish in the burbling stream.

When Eastway Elementary Principal Star Sampson contemplates the creek that stretches along the east side of the school's campus, she sees the future.

"I see my babies with digital cameras documenting nature. I would love to see a lookout bridge," Sampson said a few weeks ago as she walked the creek's edge. "I see them studying wildlife and ecology out here. It could give out our kids a chance to see things they usually ignore."

The state's Ecosystem Enhancement Program intends to meld those two visions when it embarks on a $450,000 restoration of a 2,000 foot section of Goose Creek next spring.

The project will try to undo the past by getting rid of the concrete bed, walls and tunneling that have stifled the stream, remaking some of its curves and planting lush vegetation on its banks.

The state hopes that will bring back the crawfish, mayflies and other aquatic life to Goose Creek, make the water cleaner and provide an inviting outdoor laboratory for the students and people who live nearby.

Hard years flow by

Like the neighborhood surrounding it, Goose Creek reflects decades of hard times. The section targeted runs from Taylor to Liberty streets. It gurgles under a Hope IV public housing redevelopment project, then along the school property and through Long Meadow Park. Goose Creek flows into Ellerbee Creek and then into Falls Lake, Raleigh's water supply.

The stretch received the city's second-worst pollution rating in 2004. It has the city's second-highest concentration of fecal coliform bacteria and is home to few organisms sensitive to pollutants -- a measure of water quality.

"It's looking real bad to us," said Dewberry, who has lived a few blocks downstream from the proposed restoration for 51 years.

Urban streams have a tough time. Everything let loose on the streets -- grease, oil, pesticides, dog waste -- washes unfiltered into creeks. Goose Creek's location in what was once Durham's industrial heart means it is also deluged with sewage from leaky pipes and commercial waste pumped directly into its waters.

Many of the creek's natural defenses have been taken away. Part of Goose Creek was tunneled underground so the land could be developed. When the school system built Eastway Elementary in 1995, it straightened two blocks of Goose Creek with massive concrete slabs to control its waters.

"This was the old paradigm for dealing with storm water: Get rid of it as fast as you can," said John Cox of Durham's storm water services division. "That isn't necessarily the best thing for the creek and water quality."

This is not the first try at revitalizing the stretch of creek. In 1998, the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service used a $42,000 grant to plant trees along the banks and place 21 logs in the channel to roil the water and trap sediment so aquatic plants could take root. Cox says much of the ground gained from the improvement has been lost.

"They did the best that they could with the money they had," Cox said.

Meandering back to life

Perry Sugg, the state project manager for the Goose Creek restoration, said there is enough money now to bring life back to the near-dead stream.

Over three months next spring, the state will claw out the blanched artificial walls and slope the bank. This will let soil and plants filter pollutants from storm water. The state will recreate the creek's voluptuous meanders, which produce oxygen that water life needs. It will dig out the concrete bed, so pools will form.

Willows and bunch grass will spread across the 50-yard buffer the state is hoping it will get in conservation easements. The state also wants to uncover 400 feet that flow across the Hope IV development.

The city and schools have signed memorandums of understanding with the state to make the easements permanent, which would prohibit development of the land and the removal of plants.

The behind-schedule Hope VI project is holding up final plans, however. Tom Davis, the Hope VI project manager, said final plans for the former Few Gardens public housing site are not finished, and he is not sure whether they want to open the creek.

"We're trying to ... figure out how the development and stream will work together," Davis said. Part of the stream on that property will be restored even if Hope VI has to pay for it itself, he said. Davis said he hoped to have an answer to the state about the easement within a few weeks.

Even without the Hope VI easement, the restoration will go on, Sugg said.

Pausing to listen to the rattling symphony of cicadas, Sampson said she cannot wait.

"Listen to that. Imagine what the kids will think," she said. "I've seen it at its worst, and this is really going to be great."

Staff writer Nikole Hannah-Jones can be reached at 956-2433 or nikole.hannahjones@ newsobserver.com.