When Jeff Swain, 72, moved to the Village of Aversboro in Garner with his wife in 2009, he and the others who live in the fairly new neighborhood with nice single family homes, green grass and colorful flower beds, expected to be living there for a while.
But when the N.C. Department of Transportation needed alternatives to the Orange Route to complete the N.C. 540 outerloop, it drew a line through Garner that went straight through many neighborhoods in the town, including the Village of Aversboro.
“We along the Red Route woke up one morning with great amazement to see there was a red line on the map,” Swain said.
Construction would essentially destroy those homes, as well as other parks.
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One of the many reasons the “Red Route” was developed was because it is in an area that would not impact the Dwarf wedgemussel, a federally protected species, which lives in the Swift Creek watershed, Eric Midkiff, a N.C. DOT project manager said.
The Red Route is upstream from Lake Benson.
“Of course the Red Route has its own problems, but it is an option that we are considering,” he said.
The creek drains into Lake Benson. The Dwarf wedgemussels live downstream just southeast of Lake Benson and just south of N.C. 50.
An endangered species
But what are Dwarf wedgemussels?
The Dwarf wedgemussel resembles an oyster with its shell, but they are smaller in size and live in freshwater habitats. Their shells are between 25 to 38 millimeters. Its numbers are low and continue to decrease, a reason it is considered federally endangered.
North Carolina is one of the few states where the particular species live, including New York, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Vermont, Maryland and Virginia. More are found in the northern states.
Biologists say the reason for their decline is because of water pollution and many other environmental factors that negatively affect streams.
In a memo to N.C. DOT, biologists at U.S. Fish and Wildlife said they were concerned, not necessarily with the direct effects of the highway passing over the stream, but rather the indirect effects the highway would have on the species of mussels, such as future housing growth in the area that is likely to be a result of the highway.
“With new development you get new impervious surface,” said Gary Jordan, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Whenever you have that you tend to get more degraded water quality in the watershed, bank erosion, more pollutants in the stream and more water run off.”
It’s possible that further development and further pollution could wipe out the dwarf wedge mussel species entirely, without measures to protect the stream and the species.
The Endangered Species Act of 1973, passed by Congress and signed into law by then President Richard Nixon, protects endangered fish and wildlife species. Under section 7 of the law, it requires any federal action agency, in this case, the Federal Highway Administration, to ensure that their action does not jeopardize the continued existence of any federally threatened or endangered species.
Since the Dwarf wedgemussel was first discovered in Swift Creek in 1991, biologists have noticed their decline. Biologists often conduct surveys every few years by looking underwater through buckets, or scuba dive and feel for them on the bottom of streams.
They can sometimes be hard to spot, because of their rarity and size. So there is no way of knowing how many there are, Jordan said.
“They are a very cryptic species,” Jordan said. “Anything I would tell you, somebody would argue with. For every one you find, there are probably many you would never find.”
But biologists are finding and catching fewer each time they conduct the survey. They are trying to figure out ways to increase the species, but water pollution has played a major part in its decline.
“One of the things we ought to be concerned about, because the Dwarf wedgemussel is so sensitive to changes in water quality, we have to remember that it is the same water people are drinking,” Jordan said. “So if Dwarf wedgemussels are dying from pollutants, those are the same pollutants people are drinking.”
“If there are adverse effects on the mussels, we need to be aware there could be adverse affects on humans and we need to address the problems.”
Finding a solution is possible.
“It’s not going to be possible for them to build it without adverse affects,” Jordan said. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t build it though.”
When the Clayton Bypass was under consideration for construction in the early 2000s, the Dwarf wedgemussel was also a concern for the connection between Interstate 40 and U.S. 70 business in Johnston County.
The bypass did not cross Swift Creek but it did cross the watershed and tributaries to the stream. The tributaries flow into Swift Creek and the potential for further development in the area would have caused indirect affects similar to the ones biologist are concerned about with N.C. 540.
But local ordinances between Garner, Clayton, Wake County, and Johnston County were passed to ensure the water quality stayed the same. Buffers were built around area affected, and local governments put additional restrictions on what activities could occur in the watershed.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gave DOT the OK because they were satisfied with the conservation methods.
“For the complete 540 it is possible that N.C. DOT and the Federal Highway Administration may have sufficient conservations built in their project to allow the project to move forward,” Jordan said.
One possibility biologists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are looking at is capturing a number of mussels and taking them to a laboratory setting to produce more of them.
“Just a handful of them will produce a lot, because they produce thousands and thousands of young,” Jordan said. “The problem is the vast majority never survive very long in a wild type setting. But we can raise them in a laboratory type setting in ideal type conditions and produce quite a bit of them.”
Midkiff said all the proposed routes have their own problems. Routes such as the Orange one have the most environmental effects, while others such as the Red Route have the biggest human impacts. Midkiff said DOT is looking to choose an alternative that most balances those impacts.
“Overall, in making the decision, it’s a consideration of all these issues,” Midkiff said. “It’s not an easy thing.”
Swain also serves as the president of the Homeowners Association at the Village of Aversboro. He said he and the residents of the neighborhood plan to go to the public meetings to learn more about what is happening.
N.C. DOT will hold public input sessions Monday and Tuesday and a public hearing on Wednesday.
He said he respects the fact that the mussels are a protected species and the wetlands also must be protected. However, he said the environmental study should have been conducted in the 1990s when DOT first blocked off the path for the Orange corridor.
“But it wasn’t. They waited 20 years ago,” Swain said.
Monday, Dec. 7 Barwell Road Elementary School, 3925 Barwell Road. Public Meeting: 6 to 8 p.m.
Tuesday, Dec. 8 Holly Springs High School Cafeteria, 5329 Cass Holt Road. Public Meeting: 6 to 8 p.m.
Wednesday, Dec. 9 Wake Tech Community College, Student Services Building, 9101 Fayetteville Road. Public Meeting: 4 to 6:30 p.m., Hearing: 7 p.m