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Construction & Creeks: An often dirty mix

by Becky Johnson

The "Creeks of Orange County" is the first of a three-part series on water. The next two months will highlight 'The State of Orange County's Drinking Water' and 'Growth and Water: the Endless Circle'.

Jon Kent of Chapel Hill turned to look upstream along New Hope Creek. He slung a coil of rope over his shoulder, dodged poison ivy and stepped out into the water.

It was Stream Watch Saturday. Kent, head of Orange County Stream Watch, has monitored streams on the first weekend of the month for seven years now.

Kent's yellow waders buckled as he knelt down to sift through a float pan for aquatic critters.

"We are losing species, each one of these is like a genetic bank," Kent said without looking up from his magnifying glass. He hoped to find right-opening snails and caddis flies, signs of a healthy stream with plenty of oxygen.

Unfortunately, many of these 'healthy' species are no longer present in areas with urban run-off or in areas near construction.

Pinning down the cause of unhealthy waterways has been a complex undertaking. Today, Kent and other local researchers can trace Orange County's water problems back to one culprit— development.

Development means deforestation and erosion, both of which trigger a set of chain reactions that harm and eventually kill creeks.

The temperature of a creek, stream, or lake depends on shade from surrounding trees and plants to maintain a thermal balance. But as the trees and plants along a creek are cut down, the creek loses its shade and the water heats up. Once the temperature of a creek rises, oxygen levels in the water drop, and water quality declines.

While warmer water means less oxygen, it also means more algae, which chokes off even more of the creek's oxygen. Without oxygen, fish and other aquatic critters die. These critters were supposed to eat the algae, but its growth outpaced the fishes' ability to eat it.

The other big problem for creeks and streams is the erosion and sedimentation caused by construction.

Construction debris — especially sediment — can be washed for several miles and eventually pollutes the neighboring streams, explains Dr. Seth Reice, a stream specialist in the Triangle.

"Right now, the county has a wide range of streams in both good and poor shape," according to Reice. He attributes the differences in water quality to land use.

Reice, a biology professor at UNC- Chapel Hill, monitors the effect of construction on eight streams in Orange County and 12 others around the Triangle through a half-million dollar project funded by the Environmental Protection Agency. Reice's research will be completed in October of 1999.

Reice claims the two key issues in keeping creeks healthy are cooperation from construction companies and enforcement of the zoning laws.

Usually, when construction companies do not obey pollution zoning laws, the company needs only to correct the violation, according to Warren Faircloth, Orange County erosion control supervisor. Such a lenient policy probably does not act as a successful deterrent.

There have been exceptions however. Faircloth was forced to issue a stop-work order and $1000 fine in Carrboro last spring. Due to high levels of rainfall, excess mud was preventing a construction company from working. So the company just shoved all the mud into their catch-hole, Faircloth explained.

But a catch-hole is supposed to prevent sediments from getting into nearby creeks and clogging them up. If the catch-hole gets stuffed full of mud, then it cannot do its job.

"The sediment basin had been completely obliterated," said Faircloth. "I'm sure there were consequences (to the area waterways)."

Continual, widespread pollution — a result of the Triangle being slated in the top 20 areas in the nation for growth — remains the biggest threat to area waterways.

Livy Ludington, another longtime stream activist and Stream Watch coordinator, advocates a holistic approach to the environment, particularly in dealing with creeks and streams. Orange County needs to tighten the construction zoning laws and follow more sustainable planning overall, Ludington says.

Ludington, a fifth-grade teacher, heads the stream monitoring along Morgan Creek, where her students conduct the majority of research. "It is important to teach kids where water comes from and where it goes," said Ludington.

When she began to notice increases in sediment from surrounding development, she approached Reice at a local meeting. The two stream monitors exchanged notes and found they were getting the same abominable results.

According to Ludington, Reice, and other stream monitors, the waters are surely changing.

"If mussels start to get covered by sediment and begin to die, other animals are affected and the whole food chain gets thrown off," explained Ludington. Kent already finds that there are no mussels downstream of urban runoff, such as along the Lone Creek Branch near South Square construction.

"There needs to be a hefty fine for sediment pollution, because some people just do not care about the creeks," said Ludington.

Without more vigorous action, it seems the ecology of the waterways of Orange County will be destroyed and the streams polluted by the irresponsible behavior of profit driven development and construction industries.

Roger Hansard, an EPA water quality specialist in the Triangle, says the community can do a lot to help save the creeks. If yellow waders, float pans, and babbling brooks sound like a pleasant Saturday morning, then joining Stream Watch with Kent or Ludington would be a great start. But there are many ways to contribute on a daily basis.

The first step is understanding that anything and everything that is poured or thrown on the ground eventually ends up in our waterways. Trash should always go into a trash can, because even a small rain washes litter and debris into gutters, then storm drains, and ultimately the creeks.

The use and disposal of lawn fertilizer, household cleaners, paints, — and chemicals in general — should be reduced. For example, household batteries leak toxins into the ground and should be recycled at Radio Shack or other electronic stores, instead of sending them to the landfill.

"We need to start thinking in terms of 'what are the environmental impacts of our activities,' especially as population goes up," said Hansard.

  Becky Johnson is a UNC-CH Journalism and Anthropology senior.  

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