Wake County

An urban wetland that floods Raleigh neighborhoods could become an outdoor destination

Mason Lampuri, 8, left, and his brother Rocco, 6, play in the mud pit during the first Mud Day at Walnut Creek Wetland Park in Raleigh on June 3, 2017.
Mason Lampuri, 8, left, and his brother Rocco, 6, play in the mud pit during the first Mud Day at Walnut Creek Wetland Park in Raleigh on June 3, 2017. ehyman@newsobserver.com

During a heavy rainfall, Walnut Creek often spills over its banks and floods the trails and Southeast Raleigh neighborhoods nearby.

It’s a well-known nuisance for property owners, renters and visitors to the Walnut Creek wetlands, an urban swamp two miles from downtown. But Raleigh leaders are hoping some upgrades will transform the area into a destination park and a point of pride for the community.

The Raleigh City Council on Tuesday approved a master plan for Walnut Creek Wetland Park, a 58-acre site inside the Interstate 440 Beltline. Under the plan, crews will replace the often-waterlogged woodland trails with boardwalks and bridges that will complement the greenways that run alongside the property. The plan also calls for a public garden, a two-story observation tower and education materials throughout the park.

The goal is to remind visitors of the wetlands’ role as a wildlife habitat, filter and and flood-prevention tool for the growing city, said Lora Greco, a landscape architect for Raleigh.

“As Raleigh has grown, we’ve gotten more and more impervious surfaces, and all that water has to go somewhere,” Greco said. “At one time, it all kind of slowly made its way to creeks, but now it goes so much faster. The wetland filters everything – minerals, trash, anything you don’t want in your creek.

“It’s good because you can see it, but you’re sad because there’s so much trash.”

Some environmental groups have been trying to clean up the wetlands for years. Raleigh built the Walnut Creek Wetland Center in 2009, after a community group called the Partners for Environmental Justice pushed for the project and voters approved it in a bond referendum.

The center hosts educational programs and serves as rental space for the community.

The park got $1 million from another voter-approved bond in 2014, which will help pay for the latest upgrades. Construction is expected to start in 2019. More money will be needed to complete all of the projects in the master plan, Greco said.

Walnut Creek’s wetlands served as farmland and a floodplain for African-American farmers in Raleigh’s early days. The land has been of interest to ecologists since the 19th century, but it became increasingly polluted throughout the 20th century as the land around it became more developed and populated.

Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan

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