Charlotte Observer Feb. 22, 2007

Resurrection of a wetland

Land near 2 schools will be restored to its former life-rich state

by GAIL SMITH-ARRANTS

It's a tranquil but neglected spot, a slice of old farm bottomland.

It's hemmed in by Harris Road Middle School, the construction zone for the new Odell Elementary and the sprawling Moss Creek subdivision.

In the next year or two, it could become a much more public, polished place -- an outdoor education center -- when state officials follow through on plans to restore the stream and habitat.

Eventually, students could be walking on boardwalks over the wetlands crisscrossed by a Rocky River tributary and dotted with sedges, rushes and fuzzy cattails gone to seed.

State and local officials envision the bottomland as a two-acre learning center about the size of two football fields. It would have a restored stream and wetlands with an educational trail and signs stressing the importance of wetlands in the environment.

Cabarrus County and the county school system approved the project this month, paving the way for stream restoration and related work as part of the state's Ecosystem Enhancement Program.

"The restoration project will put it back the way it was before the farmer monkeyed with it," Dennis Testerman said this week as he looked out over the floodplain.

Years ago, farmers straightened out stream channels so they would have more property for farming. That eliminated the meandering ways of streams that used to lace the floodplain, said Testerman, a conservation specialist with the county Soil and Water Conservation District.

Today, the Rocky River tributary stream must absorb runoff from roads, from the two schools sitting high above the streambed and from Moss Creek on the other side.

"That's the bottom line on why wetlands are so important," Testerman said. "The wetland takes runoff and filters out pollutants, like nature's sponge."

Prompted by development

Development is what prompted the restoration project. The little stream below Harris Road Middle is part of required federal mitigation work; the state is trying to offset environmental damage created by road construction somewhere else.The same thing has happened at adjacent Moss Creek, where developer Bob Burkett paid consultant Craig Wyant to restore butterfly habitat and wetlands to make up for land that was disturbed for the construction of the 1,400-home subdivision.

Burkett planned a learning trail connecting the subdivision to both schools, with a boardwalk and signs stressing the importance of wetlands. But that may be on hold because of the state project, he said.

"I'm kind of in limbo," Burkett said. "We were going to donate that to the county -- the work and materials."

Although the state and Burkett are working on two similar, but separate, projects, county Commerce Director Jonathan Marshall said they should be able to work together.

"I suggested to (Burkett and Wyant) that we meet to determine how the two properties can mesh and to ensure that there are no conflicts," Marshall said.

Everyone sees advantages to restoring wetlands, for residents and schoolchildren.

"This project has some real benefits ... also for the kids in the schools on either side of this project," said Tad Boggs, communications director for the state program.

Design and construction could take one to two years. Boggs said the state could work with Odell and Harris Road schools on environmental education and introduce teachers to Project WET (Water Education for Teachers), a ready-made state curriculum for all grades.

Reintroduce native species

As part of the stream/wetlands restoration, invasive plants such as honeysuckle will be yanked out and replaced with native species. The state will monitor the property for five years to make sure native vegetation thrives.

The area already has wetlands lovers. Testerman, the conservation specialist, pointed out willow oak, red cedar seedlings, hackberry and sweet gum.

"Sedges have edges. Rushes are round," he said, feeling the spiky, grassy clumps standing in the stream.

The streambed is in need of a facelift. While touring the area, Testerman picked up crushed soda cans and abandoned golf balls -- "alligator eggs," he calls them.

But he also inspected remnants from real eggs -- dried egg cases for wasp and praying mantis, clinging to blackberry briars and broomstraw grass.

As carefully as a surgeon, he pried open an egg case with a metal fingernail file. Tiny holes dotted the inside of the brown casing, hard as a walnut shell.

More than the stream is at stake in this restoration, Testerman said. "People try to forget about this as wildlife," he said. "But with the food chain, you need a constant supply of insects."