Durham News

Trees cut for Duke runoff fix

Duke University’s Nicholas School of Environment has clear-cut about one acre of woods for “stream restoration,” and one nearby Durham resident is not very happy about it.

The site, owned by Duke and located near 2300 Duke University Road, was clear-cut in early May. Curt Richardson, the Nicholas school professor overseeing the project, said two “wetland cells,” or retention ponds, will be built there to treat runoff from the 20-acre parking lot across the street.

The project is part of phase 5 of Duke SWAMP, or the Stream and Wetland Assessment Management Park, and will help restore Sandy Creek, a tributary of New Hope Creek and the Jordan Lake watershed.

“We’re trying to restore all the streams and wetlands on the Duke campus,” Richardson said. “They had been badly eroded due to urban runoff and development over the past 100-plus years.”

Laura Drey, who lives behind the site on Cranford Road, has emailed and called city officials and local environmentalists to alert them to what she sees as unnecessary clear-cutting.

“I think that having stream naturalization might be a good thing, but I believe that there is more than one approach to reach that outcome,” Drey wrote in an email.

Drey also complained of noise and Duke’s lack of communication to the neighbors on the clear-cutting aspect of the project. Other residents on Cranford also said in emails that they did not have knowledge of the project.

Richardson said there was no alternative to the clear-cutting. Erosion caused by parking-lot runoff was leading to the collapse of Duke University Road, he said, and the wetlands, in which native plants will be planted, will be able to hold and treat the runoff.

“We did not discuss in detail [with neighbors] how many trees were going to be removed, or what, but the plans showed two wetland cells,” Richardson said. “So, if you knew what you were talking about in terms of how things are designed, you’d know you cannot build and stabilize by leaving the trees in there.”

The $446,957 project was funded mostly by a $370,100 grant from the state’s Clean Water Management Trust Fund. The remainder is coming from Duke. The project received three permits from the state and federal governments and is being administered by the Durham County Soil and Water Conservation District. Richardson is on the board overseeing the Soil and Water Conservation District.

Sandy Creek has long been a polluted urban creek, according to Richardson and local naturalists.

“It’s a real beat-up creek,” said John Kent, a member of the New Hope Creek Corridor Advisory Committee who has tested water quality in the area for 20 years.

Kent, who has also followed Duke SWAMP over the years, had mixed feelings about the project. While he acknowledged that Duke has reconnected the creek to its floodplains, and the wetlands will treat pollution, he added: “Duke University needs to do their part to take care of their runoff on property. They got state money. … This project, they did it as a scientific research project rather than as a straightforward remedial retrofit.”

SWAMP enlists Nicholas school students in designing and carrying out stream restoration ideas on Sandy Creek and creating an educational area on the watershed. Originally begun in 2003 as just three phases, SWAMP has already recontoured part of the creek, built a dam and built wetlands.

In 2009, the project embarked on a phase 4, to recontour part of a stream that is a tributary to Sandy Creek.

Richardson said the entire SWAMP project has already resulted in about 64 percent reduction of nitrogen flow into the creek.

But Drey, whose father worked as a forestry manager, said she has a different concept of what “stream restoration” should be.

“I’m not a forester, but this is not how I would handle this. I wouldn’t cut anything. I wouldn’t reroute the stream,” she said. “It disgusts me. It appalls me. The Duke school could be a leader, but they’re not.”

Richardson, who has been director of Duke’s Wetland Center since 1990, dismissed Drey’s complaints. “You have an individual who is unhappy about this. I told her exactly what was happening. She is not a professional. She has no idea what is going on,” he said.

For Kent, the question of how to restore nature in urban settings, when it has already been affected by decades of development, is a difficult one to answer.

“Can you put Humpty Dumpty back together?” he mused.