Wetland Restoration

Mapping Sandy Creek: Richardson with Duke Forest  manager Judson Edeburn

 Mapping Sandy Creek: Richardson with Duke Forest 
manager Judson Edeburn. Photo: Jim Wallace


Workers are beginning to transform a heavily eroded, silt-clogged stretch of Durham's Sandy Creek into an eight-acre restored wetland and flood plain designed to help protect the Triangle's drinking-water supply and control storm-water runoff.

The restoration, a project of the Duke Wetland Center, is being funded by nearly $1.5 million in grants and in-kind gifts. The wetland center is part of the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences.

"By restoring the natural flood plain that used to be here before the onslaught of urban development, we'll recreate a healthy wetlands ecosystem that sops up pollutants and improves wildlife habitat," says Curtis Richardson, director of the wetland center and professor of resource ecology at the Nicholas School.

Project sponsors include the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, the North Carolina Wetland Restoration Program, Duke Forest, Duke's facilities management department, and the wetland center. Other faculty members from the Nicholas School and Duke's Pratt School of Engineering are also collaborating.

The project will include re-contouring and replanting more than 2,000 feet of degraded stream and constructing an earthen dam and a four-acre storm-water reservoir. Duke Forest's Al Buehler Trail, located near the Washington Duke Inn and golf course, will pass along the dam. Over the years, torrents of storm water diverted by paving have cut deeply into the banks of Sandy Creek, eroding its natural bends and creating "a straight chute for sediment and pollution," Richardson says. "We've lost the bends and contours that allowed the water to overflow into surrounding bottomlands, where wetland plants and soils could absorb the majority of the pollutants."

Richardson's team will address that problem by engineering a new, more naturally meandering streambed for Sandy Creek and filling in its old channel. Creek banks and low-lying areas will be re-shaped and planted as hardwood wetlands, which researchers believe will remove up to 70 percent of the creek's sediment and nutrients.

"Our goal is to recreate an ecosystem similar to what you would have found here seventy-five to 100 years ago," Richardson explains. He and his team have completed a biological census of the area and collected three years' worth of pre-restoration data on its soil, water, plants, and wildlife.

Besides serving as an example of a rare Piedmont wetland, the eight-acre ecosystem will provide a site for research on biological diversity, hydrology, mosquito control, invasive plant species, and other environmental concerns, he says. "What we learn here will benefit many wetlands and watersheds nationwide."

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