Work at headwaters of McDowell Creek complete


by Frank DeLoache







HUNTERSVILLE – Linda Gebelein and Leigh Marr were horrified this summer when the big earth-moving machines rolled into the area of the Torrence Creek where the Cedarfield residents enjoy walking the greenway.

They watched as construction crews dug away at the creek bank, literally pulling back the stream banks on both sides and in the process, taking out some trees and briars that produced blackberries every summer.


“Hundreds and hundreds of trees have been cut down,” Gebelein wrote in an e-mail to the Herald, “The wild raspberry and blackberry bushes are gone, and the orange fencing is cutting animals off from the water. We have lots of confused deer roaming the neighborhood because they’ve been forced out of their habitat.


“This restoration effort looks a lot like destruction to me and my neighbors,” she continued. “It would be so wonderful to learn about this project: How long will it last? What exactly is the goal?  Why was it deemed necessary?  How long will it take for our once-beautiful greenway and creek to look like a natural haven instead of road construction?”


Jimmy Gordon and David Woodie have fielded questions like this many times. They are project managers for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services Department, and part of their job is trying to save and restore the streams and creeks that gather rainwater and deposit it into the lakes along the Catawba River.


“This stream and others like it are in bad shape,” Woodie said. “To repair them, it takes construction or change, and change is never embraced initially as a positive. It takes time to mend and fill the void of what once was to what will be. As engineers on several past projects, we can see ‘what will be’ once a project matures and vegetation covers all the disturbed areas. But the residents only see the current of ‘what is,’ which can be shocking when construction takes place.


“The temporary loss of habitat will return and be sustainable long term when the new stream restoration is in place, but patience is required.”


Before the construction crews moved in, the banks of Torrence Creek had been scoured away by years of rushing water, which cut it into deep V, Gordon said. The same was true of two tributary streams that join Torrence Creek near Gilead Road in front of Cedarfield.


As more subdivisions like Cedarfield sprung up, more rooftops, driveways and other impervious surfaces increased the volume and speed of rain water rushing into Torrence Creek, gradually eliminating the original gently sloping, winding creek bed. Now a lot more dirt, fertilizer chemicals and trash make it into the creek, making sediment the biggest threat to the creeks and Mountain Island Lake, which they feed.


Federal stimulus money is paying to restore 1.7 miles of the tributary stream, starting back at Interstate 77. The federal grant also is paying to restore 1.4 miles of the main creek starting at McCoy Road, Gordon said.


The first priority of the project is to restore the original wide banks and flood plain that enable rain water to spread out and slow down. When the water slows, dirt can settle along the bank and in some holding ponds that motorists can also see along Gilead Road on the tributary stream. Crews have covered the banks with natural coconut webbing that holds grass seed and water and will eventually disintegrate.


The engineers saved as many trees as possible, Gordon said, and he doesn’t think the toll reaches hundreds. “We don’t want to cut trees. They help stabilize.”


One side of the stream is a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities easement, likely the side that had all the blackberry bushes. The utility has never allowed trees to grow on that sewer line and every few years, cuts the bushes with a bushhog, according to Gordon.


The crews put up the orange, plastic fences to keep children from wandering into the stream while construction occurs. Deer can roam a 25-square-mile territory, and they have adjusted to every new subdivision and shopping center moving into the area, Woodie said.


The biggest change will come in a few weeks once temperatures drop more and trees go to sleep for the winter. That’s when the work crews will plant 39,000 trees – at least a dozen varieties, including maple, alder, hickory, dogwood and oak. Among the trees, they’ll add 56,500 shrubs of native stream varieties and 46 acres of grass varieties that thrive in a stream-and-wetlands environment.


Eventually, those plants, trees and grass will do even more to filter water when it comes out of the banks in heavy rain. The work itself will be done by the end of the year, but the environmental engineers say to expect the restoration process to complete itself in three years.


McDowell Creek a success story


You can find an example of a completed restoration project at the back of the Cornelius Animals Shelter, in an area bounded roughly by Catawba Avenue, N.C. 115 and Washam-Potts Road. Two small streams converge to form the humble beginning of McDowell Creek, which grows in size as it meanders miles and miles to Mountain Island Lake.


Last week, Woodie picked up a rock from one of the streams beds, turned it over and pointed to several little brown bumps on the bottom: signs of progress.


The bumps are eggs, laid there by a dragonfly or one of the other insects that are beginning to flourish in the little creek. With them have also come a host of minnows, apparently making their way up the now gently winding stream.


Starting in March, construction crews moved into the 5-acre site, pulled down the vertical walls of the gully, restored the sloping creek banks and created three wetland pools. They pulled out the kudzu that had largely covered trees and land, and they’ve planted hundreds of trees and dozens of shrubs and wetlands grasses that already are flourishing.


Woodie stops at a waist-high Black-eyed Susan and breaks up one of the seed heads, scattering the contents on the ground. “Eventually, you won’t be able to see any ground,” he said. “The area will be covered in vegetation in three years.”


And McDowell Creek will have a better chance of doing its job.


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