Restoring city streams can pay for itself

Property owners along Collins Park Branch play role in restoration project

by Frank DeLoache

Storm water services Project Manager Corky Botkin looks down stream where increased runoff is eroding a bank in the stream. (Frank DeLoache/SCW photos)

On this Tuesday morning, the small stream – known to city officials as Collins Park Branch – gurgles quietly along as Corky Botkin walks along its bank. The creek water remains a light brown, a combination of the bottom silt stirred up by several days of rain and the additional bits of dirt and debris washed in with the storm water.
Hidden between the Collingswood subdivision off Woodlawn Road and three large apartment complexes off Scaleybark, this creek drains a section of South Boulevard to the west, and any good-size rain can turn Collins Park Branch into a torrent that overflows its banks and scours the sides of the creek.
That scouring action concerns Botkin, an engineer and project manager for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services.
As he makes his way down the creek from the Timber Creek Apartments, he points to places where the creek has gradually eroded away the creek bank, exposing roots of trees standing on the edge. At several spots, the bank juts almost vertically from the creek bed. In others, mounds of sediment appear to be creeping gradually into the stream bed, covering everything.
Over time, as more water flows into the creek from impervious surfaces like parking lots and roof tops, the force of the storm water has straightened out the creek bed, eliminating the natural tendency of any creek to meander in gradual curves back and forth.

Engineer Corky Botkin stands on one side of Collins Park Branch. Utility crews have added rock to prevent erosion around the pipe, but north and south of the pipe, the bank is eroded and roots exposed.

All those characteristics speak to a creek in trouble and in need of protection, Botkin said. That’s one of Botkin’s jobs – restoring streams suffering from urban development and also protecting streams, as much as possible, before they are harmed. Restoring and saving streams preserves water quality, but in one way, it also pays for itself, according to Botkin and Jennifer Frost, spokeswoman for Storm Water Services.
Whenever the city or county undertakes a construction project, anything from widening a road to installing a new runway at Charlotte-Douglas Airport, that work often disturbs a creek or wetlands. Federal and state environment law requires the city to take action to make up for that damage, a requirement known as “mitigation.”
The city might repair the damaged creek or wetlands, but the city also can use “credits” it has accumulated in the restoration of streams elsewhere in the city.
Charlotte was the first city in the country to create its own “mitigation bank” in 2004, and ever since then, it has spent about $2.2 million a year on stream restoration projects, Frost said. To date, the city has “sold” a little more than $1.8 million in mitigation credits.
Botkin and other Storm Water project managers work closely with federal and state environmental regulators to pick projects that will add to the city’s mitigation credits, Botkin said.
Mecklenburg County has 3,000 miles of stream, Frost said, “and almost all of those are affected in some way. It might be severe erosion, with trees falling in, but almost all our streams have been affected.”
Currently, the city has 78 streams ranked and identified as potential restoration projects. The county and city divide the stream restoration projects, with the county taking on major collector creeks and the city sticking to smaller streams that drain less than a square mile of land. In the case of Collins Park Branch, the city has created several restoration projects along the stream, which is a tributary of Little Sugar Creek, Botkin said.
Because the city has limited resources, one factor in choosing restoration projects is the willingness of landowners on each side of the creek to grant permanent easements so the city can maintain a creek’s integrity once repairs are complete.
A project will get a higher ranking if fewer landowners have to grant easements, Frost said. In the case of Collins Park Branch, the city will have to negotiate with 21 property owners, including the apartment complexes, Botkin said.
When a South Charlotte Weekly reporter tried to reach the manager of Timber Creek Apartments, a person answering the phone said, “I don’t think she has enough information to make any comment yet” on the Collins Park Branch restoration.
The city won’t make a decision on the project until the U.S. Corps of Engineers agrees that the project qualifies for mitigation credits and city officials are assured the project can be done for a reasonable price.
Botkin expects the restoration work will divide into two general types:
• Obtaining easements on both sides of the creek north of Falls Creek Lane. The stream bed, apparently with the aid of naturally occurring bedrock, has not eroded badly, and the city can best protect it by preserving natural buffers on each side.
• South of Falls Creek Lane, engineers would have to do restoration work, where possible pulling back vertical banks that tend to funnel the water too quickly and restoring the natural meandering curve of the stream, which will naturally filter impurities. Slowing the water also allows plants, insects and aquatic life to flourish.
In restoring the sloping banks, crews also would plant vegetation and rock or stone structures that will prevent erosion from returning, Botkin said.
“The people who work on these projects love the work because you’re preserving water quality and have restored a stream,” Botkin said. “Another good benefit is that it sort of pays for us to restore more streams in the future.”

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