Durham News, Nov. 08, 2008

Durham News: Tensions stir over troubled waters

By Jim Wise, Staff Writer

Where it flows through Northgate Park, Ellerbe Creek is getting a facelift.

At the north, near the dog park, the formerly steep banks have been scoured clean and graded to gentler slopes: the same treatment is under way downstream toward Club Boulevard.

Orange construction fencing marks off stretches of creek and parcels of park, here and there with a sign advising "Tree Protection Area"; on a brilliant autumn afternoon, the human presence was mostly work crews with heavy machinery.

And it's only just beginning.

The Northgate facelift is just the currently visible portion of stream-restoration projects, involving the city, the county, the state and a handful of conservation-minded organizations, working the length of Ellerbe Creek.

"It's a major hot spot for water-quality problems," said Diana Tetens, director of the nonprofit Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association. "It does not meet water-quality standards."

But there are some concerns.

"We understand that we need to clean up the stream," said Page McCullough, who lives in the park neighborhood. "But ... we love our park just as it is."

The law and the creek

The federal Clean Water Act of 1972 as well as subsequent acts by the North Carolina legislature require local jurisdictions to reduce and manage pollution that streams carry into reservoirs such as Falls and Jordan lakes.

Ellerbe Creek is a "303(d)" stream, meaning its water is below minimum quality -- actually, Tetens said, the creek's 36.7-square mile watershed contributes more pollution to Falls Lake than any other stream in the 770-square mile Upper Neuse River basin.

In large part, that is because Ellerbe Creek flows through the most urban environment. The main stream originates from springs in western Durham. It runs under Interstate 85 and U.S. 15-501, through Hillandale Golf Course, past North Pointe shopping center and under Duke Street before passing Edison Johnson Recreation Center and the Museum of Life and Science and flowing through Northgate Park.

In a wooded area across Club Boulevard, that main stream meets twin-branched South Ellerbe Creek. The western branch rises near Greystone Baptist Church and runs through Old West Durham and Walltown, and under Northgate Mall; the eastern branch drains downtown, running through and below Durham Central Park, under the Durham Athletic Park, through the Trinity and Duke Park neighborhoods.

Along the way, it collects plenty of runoff from yards, streets and parking lots, and plenty of eroded sediment. A 2006 study even found fecal coliform bacteria. Under those circumstances, said Beth Timson of the Durham parks department, "Real interesting things are going on."

Help from friends

Ellerbe Creek has two sets of friends: the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association, formed in 1999, and the Friends of South Ellerbe Creek, formed about a year later. Those groups conduct stream cleanups, watch out for pollution and develop nature preserves along the streams.

ECWA also took part, starting in 2003, in developing a plan to preserve the watershed, working with the city of Durham, state agencies and the Upper Neuse River Basin Association -- a 12-year-old body formed by eight towns, six counties and soil and water conservation districts in the upper Neuse (i.e., Falls Lake) watershed. That project has led to a city-sponsored Ellerbe Creek Watershed Improvement Project that is looking for likely restoration sites along the creek, and figuring what sort of restorations will do the most good at each point. Its report is due next summer.

In October, field crews from the Upper Neuse association were assessing the stream outside the city limits for similar restoration potential. That work is "kind of on the same page" as the city project, said its manager, Sandi Wilbur, with the two agencies sharing information and plans.

And there is the Northgate Park job, courtesy of the state's Ecosystem Enhancement Program. The state program contracts and pays for the work, then maintains most of the restoration for five years. The city's only cost is an easement along the creek, and its agreement to assume maintenance after the state is done, according to Paul Wiebke of the city stormwater control office.

Mixed blessings

In all, the Northgate project runs 2,500 feet, from Club Boulevard north to the Museum of Life and Science property line. It involves stabilizing the banks to reduce erosion, planting a 50-foot buffer on either side -- "trees and shrubs, all relatively small, and some grasses," Wiebke said -- to slow and filter runoff before it reaches the stream, and building three "pocket wetlands" that capture and filter pollutants.

In three or four years, Ellerbe Creek in Northgate should resemble Third Fork Creek in Forest Hills Park, which received another Environmental Enhancement treatment in 2005.

That project has had mixed reviews from the neighborhood. Some residents approve of the water-quality benefits, but others miss the grassy vista across the park and consider the planted buffer an unsightly breeding ground for such undesirables as mosquitoes, rats and copperheads.

In 2005, Forest Hills resident Randy Pickle said the creek was "happier than I've ever seen." In 2008, he said the restoration "ruined a great deal of the ... aesthetics and will continue to do so forever, I guess." Moreover, flourishing ragweed in the buffer has led to an annual ritual: "We have to break out the machetes and start chopping before it blooms," he said.

Those 50-foot buffers in long and narrow Northgate Park worry McCullough, too. The creek easement covers about seven of Northgate Park's 27 acres, she said.

In Forest Hills, the only view of water is from a bridge, she said. "Personally, I would like to see more of the creek." And the seedlings, shrubs and grass won't take the place of mature trees lost to clearance and accidental damage.

Her neighbor is worried about trees.

"They are going to be planting about 1,400 seedlings," said Line Dempsey, another Northgate resident. "A few trees will probably come of those."

In the end, it's a tradeoff, McCullough said.

"The park is going to change, and change is disconcerting," she said. But, "We have to clean up the creek."

jim.wise@newsobserver.com or 919-932-2004