Raleigh Regulatory Project Manager Jamie Shern casually kneeled down in the waters of the Rocky Branch Creek on the campus of NC State, turned over a rock, and gently picked up a Southern two-lined salamander. This simple little amphibian that he cradled in the palms of his hands was actually a good indicator of the health of the water. A “canary in the coal mine”, it can only live in areas that are relatively free of pollutants. Within an urban area like Raleigh, its discovery was a small, but significant sign that measures to protect the headwaters of the Neuse River Basin are starting to work.
“Oh, absolutely,” said Raleigh Regulatory Field Office Chief Jeanne Emanuele. “We were very surprised to see that salamander. We’ve always stated that when we do stream restoration projects we use the phrase ‘build it and they will come.’ It’s been roughly 10 years for the critters to come. In most instances they will, but you have to have the pollutants removed.”
The Rocky Branch Creek restoration project began with a permit issued by the Raleigh Regulatory Field Office to try to restore it to a natural state. For years it had been abused because of building construction and the placement of impermeable surfaces like roads and parking lots.
“The stream was in a very narrow confine,” she said. “When we restore streams like that we try to get it back to its natural state and allow the flooding that normally a stream would do. When you get a stream that’s heavily degraded because of herbicides, pesticides and runoff the critters in the aquatic community can’t survive there anymore. When those pollutants are removed then the critters can come back.”
Manuele said the importance of the animals is that they provide food for the downstream food web.
“A lot of people don’t really think about that. There are a lot of tiny bugs that live on the rocks that help break down leaf matter into parts that we can’t see. It moves further downstream to feed the fish and other animals. As we get into the Neuse River you won’t find as many of those small bugs that break down that matter. So, if we destroy all of that upstream habitat we lose what we call ‘carbon’ as a source of food for fish.”
Manuele said the challenge for members of the Raleigh Regulatory Field Office is to balance economic development and concerns for the environment within the office’s 30-county area. About 750,000 people live in the Raleigh/Durham area, but by the year 2030 it’s expected to rise to 1.5 million people.
“It’s difficult to try to maintain a balance. We get permits for a road, for example, but does that mean additional areas for a subdivision? Or a sewer line that takes up even more space to function. When you look at the Neuse River Basin it’s part of Durham’s drinking water, it's part of Raleigh’s drinking water, and so everything that we do affects that water. When you look at how many times water has been cleaned and recleaned through water treatment plants it’s easy to see how many chemicals have been used by the time the water flows down to places like New Bern and other areas. We also cover the Roanoke River Basin which is a little more pristine in areas. It’s not as heavily impacted as urban areas.”
Manuele examined a creek near downtown Raleigh has developed a greatly enlarged channel because of the runoff from home developments. Historically, she explained, people would build their homes on top of the stream banks. Water has to go somewhere when it rains, so small drainage channels that naturally went toward the creek just became larger over time with water pooling on newly-built roads and eventually gushing downstream into the creek.
“It’s like putting a fire hose here when it rains because the water comes down much quicker. The Corps’ role is to work with developers and to work with the local planners to do things in a wise fashion. For instance, in the Neuse Basin we have a 50-foot buffer that’s imposed by the state. It’s very important to have that because it helps remove impurities, and it helps hold the banks in place. So now any new development has to have that buffer to reduce the impacts on these stream settings.”
Manuele said balancing development and maintaining a healthy ecosystem is difficult, but in the long run it takes extra pressure off the streams. The runoff affects water quality, loss of habitat, and loss of wildlife. She and Shern searched for any type of life, but there wasn’t any.
“Again, that's a direct result of runoff from parking lots like oils, gasses, antifreezes…the fertilizers that we put into our yards. All of this is ultimately transported downstream into the Neuse River and ultimately to the Atlantic Ocean.”