Mecklenburg County's lakes and streams are its most important natural resource providing residents with their drinking water supply and many community amenities. However, as the county's population continues to grow, these water resources and aquatic organisms living there are increasingly threatened by the quality and quantity of the stormwater flowing into them.
Over the last decade, Charlotte Mecklenburg Storm Water Services has been initiating efforts to protect water quality and restore degraded stream channels as a way to promote the return of various aquatic life. Elected officials thought it was important to put rules in place to help clean our streams.
"You know back in the 90s and 2000s there was a lot of effort put together to try and come up with rules that would allow us to, in the short term as well as long term, improve water quality habitat around our creeks and streams and just make them better for people and for wildlife." David Woody, Project Manager for Mecklenburg County Storm Water Services explains why there is a need for stream restoration projects. "The fact that a new community or a new shopping center or a new roadway is being built upstream, mother nature does not account for that and over the years that is what has eroded a lot of the stream banks where we have a larger volume of water to contend with."
The construction phase of a stream restoration project displaces the animals living both in the water and along the stream banks. During this phase of construction, large equipment may be in the stream, the stream channel may be moved and many trees and soil may be removed from the banks.
The ecological recovery of a stream and adjacent area happens in three stages, immediate short-term, 2-5 years or long term. Olivia Edwards, Environmental Supervisor from Mecklenburg County's Water Quality Program says ecological recovery starts immediately after construction is completed. "Shortly after construction we get that heavy equipment out of the stream and it's now filled with all types of different habitat. The stream banks have been pulled back and are stable, there's vegetation that's been planted along the stream bank. We start seeing those bugs and those fish, they find out hey here's a great spot for us to live and we'll start seeing them come back."
After construction, field staff will compare what has changed to the local ecology. "Nature is great at trying to figure out what is going to work best given the habitat that's been given and what we typically see after a stream project is a good colonization by animals. It may not be the same stuff that was here before but we know that we're improving habitat for a certain component of our wildlife."
A primary goal of a stream restoration project is to create a habitat where bugs, fish and other organisms can find shelter. Ripples and other design features make the water move quickly, creating oxygen needed by all aquatic life. "When we see those organisms come back it's a measure of success." Little bugs are the base of the food chain and fish eat the bugs, mammals and birds eat the fish. A whole eco-web is created and a restoration project restores that base. "But when we are in an urban environment like we are where we have constant growth with constant development, a stream is never going to fix itself, it's never going to be able to get back to a place where it's got habitat back. It's got stream banks that are stable that it's got good vegetation. So, we have to come in and we have to engineer these streams to get them back to a state where they are engineered but that they more mimic the natural you know a natural stream system."
Immediately after construction, vegetation is planted along the stream bank but it's small typically you'll see a lot of open areas. In the short term and long term stages shrubs and trees will grow larger filling in the open spaces. The vegetation buffer creates an area that other wildlife amphibians, birds and mammals can utilize making this area an ideal place for a greenway to offer an opportunity for the community to recreate and connect with nature. "I talk a lot about, you know bugs and fish and it's hard for people to make a connection with that, you know, why should I care about a bug and a fish, but again like those organisms are the base of food webs and so us having a good population of bugs and fish it's not just about that single population it's about that it creates a system that allows us to support all types of ecological diversity. Plants and animals and we all benefit from that we and we all benefit from clean water what would happen to our streams. "If the county and our community didn't support stream restoration projects, the banks would collapse, trees would fall in, if we get enough trees falling in, it could create a blockage and then we get additional flooding locally which could impact someone's house."
Streams should be thought of as infrastructure, just like roadways and pipes. They need repairs and improvements. Creeks are the ultimate infrastructure because they not only carry stormwater but they create the foundation for a vitally important ecosystem, neglecting them would be a terrible mistake for our community for the future in and around Mecklenburg County. "I think that we're going to continue to have opportunities to do aquatic restoration, be able to provide not only stream restoration projects but also public recreation, like the greenway that we have here. Being able to combine habitat restoration whether it's aquatic or trees and do that with a park project like a greenway or another park, I mean it's it just really makes for a really good business and it's very smart."
When you see bugs and fish thriving in area creeks, it's a reminder that you live in a community that cares about clean water, healthy streams, recreational opportunities and the overall safety of its residents.