Falls Lake estuary is a lot cleaner now

jwise@newsobserver.comApril 6, 2013 

— Looking along the creek bank, Lesley Pond could see empty bottles, shreds of paper and Styrofoam, campfire ashes and charred wood strewn with beer cans, plastic bait tubs and fishhook packets.

“This is awful,” she said.

“Mind-boggling,” said her father, Ian Pond of Durham, who spent Saturday morning with half a dozen volunteers cleaning up the estuary where Ellerbe Creek flows into Falls Lake.

Working for four hours, on foot and by kayak, Ian Pond and his crew of neighbors and work colleagues filled about 35 trash bags with litter and debris washed downstream into a secluded spot that is a haven for waterfowl, paddlers and fishermen.

“Not bad for a small group of people,” said volunteer Mike Shiflett.

“A hard-working small group of people,” said Cheri Hoffman.

Ellerbe Creek rises in western Durham and flows 12 miles east to Falls Lake, along the way draining 37 square miles of heavily developed city and collecting smaller urban streams, stormwater runoff and all that comes with them. Thus, Ellerbe Creek is the most-polluted waterway in the Falls watershed.

That condition, the creek’s presence in residential neighborhoods and its wooded stretches that appeal to boaters and fishermen have inspired cleanup projects, chemical and aesthetic, by the city, by outdoor-gear businesses such as Frog Hollow Outdoors, neighborhood groups and the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association, a nonprofit group formed in the late 1990s to protect and restore the stream.

Saturday’s cleanup was a combination of Pond’s personal interest and that of his employer, the Body Shop in Wake Forest, which asked him to organize an Earth Day project for the office.

“I am shocked and amazed at how much trash is out here,” said Hoffman, event planning manager at the Body Shop.

The place, though, was “absolutely beautiful,” she said.

“I kayak here, and we enjoy the lake,” said Sebastien Florand, one of Pond’s neighbors in the Northgate Park area of Durham that flanks Ellerbe Creek.

“And it’s nice to teach my daughter to be responsible,” he said.

“There was not really anything else I wanted to do, and it seemed fun,” said Mia Florand, 6 (“and three-quarters”), who was collecting trash under a railway trestle.

“You get to help the environment. If you don’t clean up, then animals could get really sick … and die,” she said.

‘Just dumbstruck’

Saturday morning was bright and cool with a steady breeze off the water. Canada geese honking and small waves splashing along the banks were about the only sounds, with the closest road half a mile away.

Cleanup volunteers reached the spot by a 20-minute kayak paddle or walking from the road by way of a muddy footpath and a railway embankment.

“This is a gigantic wildlife area because it’s so remote,” Pond said. “Blue herons, white egrets and any number of ... geese, ducks.”

But it’s also a gigantic collecting area for trash.

Pond said he paddled into the estuary last year and was “just dumbstruck” by the amount.

In October, as part of the Watershed Association’s annual “Creek Sweep,” he led a first cleanup at the estuary, collecting more than 60 bags of trash and recyclables that had to be hauled out by boat.

“It was nasty,” Florand said.

“Last time when we came out, we were horrified by the amount of trash from the fishermen,” Pond said. “They just ... drop everything.”

‘Just pick and pick and pick’

The volunteers dropped a hint, posting “Pack it in, pack it out” signs on the railroad bridge. The main source of trash, though, is Durham, he said.

“What happens here is, the storm drains from around (north) Durham all flush into Ellerbe Creek, and it all flushes down to the estuary,” Pond said. “Quite literally, you get islands of trash built up in the creek. It’s mind-boggling to see. They’re the size of a room in a house, and they’re solid trash.”

Pond said the city ought to screen its storm drains to keep trash from going in the first place. In the meantime, he said, he hopes cleanup up the estuary every six months will keep the trash buildup in control and set a good example.

When the volunteers arrived Saturday, the area was still much cleaner than it had been in October.

Still, there was plenty to pick up.

“You just go to a spot, and you don’t have to move, you just pick and pick and pick,” Pond said, working along the railroad embankment where a past storm had left debris 10 feet above the lake’s usual waterline.

Over the morning, they found aluminum cans, plastic bottles, fishing lures, candy wrappers, paper cups, chunks of Styrofoam, a spade, shoes, a doll, a boat ladder, a broken arrow, assorted balls, iron casing straps and the carcass of a crow.

“A very successful collection,” Pond said.

“It never ends,” Hoffman said. “I do a section and look back and, ‘How did I miss that?’ ”

Wise: 919-641-5895

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