Greensboro News & Record June 26, 2004

Workers restoring stream's old flow

By Taft Wireback Staff Writer

GREENSBORO -- The stream, an arm of South Buffalo Creek, used to run straight through southeast Greensboro.

But every year, the deep groove carved by what once was a tiny branch crept ever closer to Southside Boulevard, threatening to undermine the roadbed.

Residents of the neighborhood surrounding Benbow Park in southeast Greensboro were troubled, especially when a particularly heavy rain would send the water hurtling and raise fears that someday it might claim the life of a child.

"I've lived here 40 years, and I've seen that creek completely overflow five times," said resident T.O. Stokes Jr, pausing earlier this week while mowing his front yard. "The erosion was so bad, it was within five feet of the street. I called that to their (city officials') attention a couple years ago."

Administrators told him that they had something in the works. And, indeed, they did.

Working through a North Carolina program that restores damaged stream banks and the drainage areas known as wetlands, state and local officials are about to unveil a whole new look for the once tiny creek that now drains a huge swath of urban landscape.

The most radical part of the process involved covering over the creek's old, arrow-straight course with soil and forging a new path, a meandering course bounded by a large flood plain. The result is a section of stream less prone to erosion with room to overflow in ways that don't threaten neighborhood tranquility.

The goal is to make the stream more closely resemble what it used to be, before well-meaning but misguided government officials dredged the channel straight decades ago. That was the way engineers dealt with urban streams back then, turning them into linear funnels with the goal of moving as much rain "runoff" out of the city as quickly as possible.

It succeeded at that. But it also turned the streams into lifeless gulches with ever worsening erosion problems. Frequent mowing to cut back all vegetation simply aggravated the situation.

"We've come full circle with streams over the last 30 or 40 years, no question about it," said Bill Wright, director of stream restoration for Greensboro-based Shamrock Environmental Corp.

Shamrock is the contractor on the project at Benbow Park, near South Benbow Road and East Florida Street. Shamrock is wrapping up that site this week. And will begin a sister project at Brown Bark Park in western Greensboro, along a tributary of North Buffalo Creek bounded by Brown Bark, Wautauga and Westminster drives.

Together, the two projects will cost about $400,000 , paid primarily by the state highway program and by contributions from private developers. Those two sources provide money to offset damage their various construction projects have done to other stream segments and wetlands.

Greensboro city government has been an enthusiastic partner with the state's stream restoration program. City officials also hope to pursue other, similar projects on their own in years to come.

"Some of our streams are in really bad shape and we have a large number of parks with these streams flowing through them," said David Phlegar, water quality supervisor in the city's storm-water division.

So far, the state restoration program has spent about $1.75 million in Greensboro during the past several years, including larger repair efforts already finished last year on streams through Hillsdale Park in southwest Greensboro and through Gillespie Park just west of Benbow, said Jim Stanfill, a state program supervisor based in Raleigh.

Wright and his crews are practitioners of a peculiar science: artificially reworking a body of water's course, texture and geophysics to resemble what it would be if man had just let nature well enough alone in years past.

They do that by finding healthy streams that closely resemble the damaged ones. Then, a design engineer records the natural features that have kept the healthy streams vibrant and figures out how to recreate those features at the damaged creeks.

Shamrock and other contractors follow the resulting diagrams to superimpose all of those protective features on the damaged stretches of water.

At Brown Bark Park in western Greensboro, Shamrock has been stockpiling large quantities of rock to be used in returning its stream to a more natural configuration. The company will rework that creek in ways similar to its efforts at Benbow Park, Wright said.

At Benbow, the contractor has built numerous structures such as "cross vanes" and "J-hooks," large features made of stone from other construction sites. The new features quickly blend into the stream's natural backdrop, performing such functions as slowing or redirecting the current to minimize erosion.

Shamrock filled in the old, straight channel of the unnamed creek at Benbow Park. Then its crew detoured the stream on a more natural, winding course that ties back into the old channel about a quarter mile from the project's starting point.

The crews have put down temporary plantings to hold the soil. They'll return later to plant permanent landscaping aimed both at holding the soil and affording habitat for wildlife. Eventually, a tree canopy will grow, providing shade that keeps the water cool enough for aquatic life to thrive.

Stokes and other nearby residents say they appreciate the efforts to revive the stream and to make it a friendlier presence in their neighborhood. The investment in a neighborhood with a large number of African American residents is significant, Stokes said, noting that his section of town has not always shared equally in such improvement projects.

But Stokes said that after living in the area 40 years, he's observed a thing or two about the nature of the creek. He's worried that at the end of Benbow Park, the new stream just ties back into the old straight version. That leaves a potential bottleneck that still could cause flooding and erosion nearby, he said.

"They're going to have to continue (reworking the stream) down to the basin where it empties," Stokes said. "If not, it's still going to clog up. But this is an excellent start."

Contact Taft Wireback at 373-7100 or