Health & Family

Can Charlotte learn to love its lacework of small streams?

Little Sugar Creek in Hidden Valley is buried under the Tryon Mall parking lot, with just a short section exposed.
Little Sugar Creek in Hidden Valley is buried under the Tryon Mall parking lot, with just a short section exposed. NANCY PIERCE

If you live in Charlotte, you probably live near a creek, even if you don’t realize it.

It’s a city filled with creeks. They begin in backyard ditches, storm drains, nature preserves and neglected no man’s lands. They lead, eventually, to the Atlantic Ocean.

Mecklenburg County holds 3,000 miles of creeks, and all but two of its creeks start in the county. That means the stream network is disproportionately made of small headwaters creeks.

About 1,000 miles of streams have water year-round; the others only during wet times of year – maybe spring-fed backyard trickles or roadside gullies, possibly seen as nuisances in heavy rain. Many are imprisoned in pipes and culverts. But each trickle, ditch or pipe carries an infinitesimal piece of the network that connects neighborhood to neighborhood, rivulets to creeks and then to a river, and finally to the sea.

For many people today, the creeks are barely noticed. Kids today, unlike their parents, aren’t likely to play in creeks, often because adults worry about pollution.

That is the setting for KEEPING WATCH on WATER: City of Creeks, a project of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute and the College of Arts + Architecture that launches publicly March 27. Its goal: Spotlight and celebrate the city’s underappreciated creeks.

The project features an art exhibit at the UNCC’s uptown Projective Eye Gallery. City of Creeks will also feature articles at PlanCharlotte.org and KeepingWatch.org, an exhibit of historic photos at the Charlotte Museum of History, a “Passage of Rain” community event in the Revolution Park neighborhood, and other public events.

KEEPING WATCH is a three-year initiative to promote environmental awareness, education and engagement. In 2014 it centered on plastics and recycling, and in 2016 it will focus on air and trees.

Creeks shaped Charlotte

In a stone hut in east Charlotte, a man in Colonial-era knee breeches dips a gourd into about 3 inches of water flowing across a dirt floor. He drinks.

The water is cool – always 54 degrees, says Tom Phlegar – and tastes as sweet as Evian. It may not be the safest drink in town, but Phlegar, a Charlotte Museum of History volunteer, has been swigging spring water at the Hezekiah Alexander House on Shamrock Drive for 12 years and hasn’t gotten sick yet. (Experts caution not to drink from a spring unless it’s been tested for safety.)

This is one of the birthplaces of Briar Creek. In the 1760s, when Hezekiah Alexander arrived, he built a rock house so sturdy it still stands, near a cluster of springs feeding a creek. Settlers depended on springs for reliable drinking water and to help cool and preserve perishables.

About 4 miles northeast are some murky woods behind a parking lot at Parks Chevrolet. If you dodge poison ivy and plastic trash, you might see dingy culverts, mossy rocks and a bile-green puddle – maybe an oozing spring, maybe just lingering rainwater. This obscure spot marks a birthplace of Little Sugar Creek, one of Charlotte’s most historic and visible waterways.

Those multiple waterways, today barely noticed, were essential in shaping Charlotte’s settlement and transportation patterns.

Topographical maps show a defining ridge through the county – dividing two river watersheds. Most of Mecklenburg drains west to the Catawba River, but a third drains east to the Yadkin. Main Street in Davidson follows that ridge. So do parts of North Tryon Street.

Recreation during segregation

It was on those ridges between creeks – where land was drier – that Native Americans established trading paths, routes that later drew European traders and settlers.

At one ridge crest between two creeks, where the famed Occaneechi Trading Path met another, settlers laid out a village, Charlotte, whose earliest street grid followed those northeast-to-southwest ridgelines. That’s why uptown Charlotte streets don’t run north-south and east-west. Even today many major Charlotte roads run atop ridgelines.

But the locals didn’t protect the creeks. They dumped sewage and factory waste. People put buildings on creek banks and floodplains, then blamed the creeks for flooding. Little Sugar Creek grew notoriously foul. By 1907, the Charlotte Daily News called it “a death-dealing nuisance.” A 1956 Observer article called it a “smelly scourge.” Into the 1950s, Charlotte Water director Barry Gullet says, it was standard practice to design city sewer systems to allow overflows into lakes, rivers or streams, and Charlotte was no exception.

Meantime, less obviously tainted creeks drew people to their banks. Longtime Reid Park residents Curley Hall and Laura Rankin recall baptisms in an Irwin Creek tributary. For black residents barred by segregation from city swimming pools, creeks were recreation. Near the Grier Heights neighborhood, a deep spot in Briar Creek at the Mint Museum was a special lure.

Richard Perry, 80, grew up in the Cherry neighborhood. “We would walk from Cherry all the way to Griertown to swim,” he recalls. “That was the deepest water around. We called that the Big Boy Hole.”

Hope for renewal

It’s summer 1969, and a crew-cut man in glasses carries a notebook while wading Little Sugar Creek. Pat Stith, 27, a Charlotte News reporter, is investigating illegal pollution. He finds plenty to write about – more than two dozen businesses are piping waste into the creek.

“You never saw any clean, sparkly water,” he recalls, 45 years later. “It was always cloudy, milky. There was nothing about that creek that looked inviting.”

He waded 19 miles, from the headwaters to the South Carolina line. In a story headlined “Catch Any Fish In Sugar? You Can Forget About It,” he reported that at Cordelia Park, Piedmont Courts and Freedom Park they found “one dead frog, one live earthworm, two beer cans and several hundred cigarette butts. They did not find any fish.”

“There was trash up and down the creek,” Stith recalls. “You didn’t see any kind of wildlife, except rats.”

In 1972, the federal Clean Water Act began to control pollution from industrial and sewer pipes. Today, fish and waterfowl swim again in once-toxic places.

In Mecklenburg, stricter ordinances, creek restorations and a growing greenway system bring hope for wider renewal. Yet even amid those signs, all the county’s creeksheds today are polluted.

The biggest threats today aren’t rogue industries. Today, pollution comes from rooftops and pavement and, well, poop. The most prevalent pollutants are bacteria from feces, including from sewer overflows, and sediment from runoff.

Unlike many older cities, Charlotte’s storm drains flow into its creeks, not sewers. When it rains, water gushes into creeks with such speed that, as Mecklenburg County water quality director Rusty Rozzelle puts it: “It’s going to scour out all the aquatic habitat that’s in there.”

The mud then settles, burying whatever once lived in the creek. “It just kind of like takes the natural environment and shoots it in the head with a rifle,” Rozzelle says.

Potential awaits

Little Sugar, once a “smelly scourge,” today is a visible reminder of the creeks’ potential as amenities, not nuisances. Most of the county’s 40 miles of greenway run alongside creeks. And the 2010 opening near uptown of a visible greenway segment brings people near the water again – bicycling, running or just strolling.

“The greenways provide exposure to the importance of creeks and wetlands,” says Wayne Weston, former county park and recreation director. “We’ve now got a generation that understands the importance of preserving these areas.”

Some are starting to learn about Charlotte’s system of creeks. At a Big Sweep cleanup last fall along Irwin Creek, Kathryn Moore, 30, her 4-year-old son, Patrick, and other volunteers donned gloves and toted garbage bags along an Irwin Creek greenway.

Moore, who lives in the Plaza Midwood neighborhood, said the greenway behind Ray’s Splash Planet surprised her.

“It’s a beautiful creek,” she said. “I didn’t even know this was here.”

eWriters Amber Veverka and Mae Israel contributed to this article.

What you can do

▪ Prevent erosion. Plant trees and bushes along creek banks and in bare areas of the yard.

▪ Scoop the poop. Dog waste can pollute creeks.

▪ Use fewer fertilizers and chemicals in your yard.

▪ Don’t dump cooking grease and oil down the sink.

▪ Take hazardous chemicals to a recycling center.

Get involved: Volunteer with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services; report pollution, including soil erosion: http://charmeck.org/stormwater.

City of Creeks events

KEEPING WATCH on WATER: City of Creeks activities include an art exhibition, creek walks and Little Sugar Creek stream cleanup.

Art exhibition

Works by artists Lauren Rosenthal (Mecklenburg Creeks Drawing, a large cut-paper map of local watersheds), Stacy Levy (Watershed Pantry), Marek Ranis (STEWARDSHIP video) with Tina Katsanos and Nancy Pierce (photography).

Details: Projective Eye Gallery, UNC Charlotte Center City, 320 E. Ninth St. March 27-June 17. Opening reception: March 27, 6-8 p.m. Free parking in the lot at Ninth and Brevard streets March 27 reception. The area around the UNC Charlotte Center City building is under construction. Ninth Street is closed to through traffic between North College and North Brevard streets. North Brevard Street may be accessed via 11th or 12th streets. Check keepingwatch.org for driving and parking updates.

Creek walks

Guided walks along Charlotte’s creeks. Details: keepingwatch.org. April 25: UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens, 10-11 a.m., highlighting students’ stream reconstruction project. Meet at greenhouse, Craver and Mary Alexander roads. More information: mlizotte@uncc.edu; May 2: Irwin and Stewart creeks; May 3: Little Sugar Creek; May 30: McDowell Creek. April 18: Briar Creek stream cleanup, 9 a.m.-noon, sponsored by Catawba Riverkeeper. Meet at Mint Museum, 2730 Randolph Road, Charlotte. Details: 704-679-9494 or sam@catawbariverkeeper.org. Little Sugar Creek stream cleanup, May 2, 9 a.m.-noon: creek cleanup at Cordelia Park, 2100 N. Davidson St., part of Great American Clean Up! events with Keep Charlotte Beautiful and Keep Mecklenburg Beautiful. Details: kcb@charmeck.org.

Dirty Martini film screenings

Locally sourced martinis at pre-screening receptions. Panel discussions with each film. Slow Food Charlotte co-sponsors. UNCC Center City.

▪ April 9, 7 p.m.: “Lost Rivers.”

▪ May 1, 7 p.m.: “Watermark.”

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