For months, Cedarfield residents in Huntersville have watched as crews tore out trees, relocated dirt and removed vegetation along their greenway.
County officials hope to restore the creek to its natural condition, said Sharon Foote, education coordinator for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services. Residents should be able to see and taste a difference in just a few months.
That's because the small creeks that run in the backyards of many Lake Norman homes make up part of the McDowell Watershed, which flows into Mountain Island Lake. That lake is the Charlotte area's main source of drinking water, said Foote.
But growth in the region has steadily polluted drinking water and threatened the environmental integrity of area creeks, said Foote.
A few years ago, the county launched a campaign to repair the most threatened and polluted streams in the area, including Torrence Creek in Huntersville.
Foote said work is nearing completion on two segments of the Torrence Creek restoration project. Heavy machinery, such as what was used to relocate dirt around the creek, will be removed in January. The final step, adding vegetation to prevent erosion, will occur in March, a more ideal time for planting.
"Our goal is to get these creeks off of the state's impaired waterway list. That's just their word for polluted," said Foote. "We've got a lot of urban and suburban streams on that list, and that's not good."
A slew of human actions are to blame for the area's polluted waterways, said Foote. For instance, when the Army Corps of Engineers started straightening the nation's naturally curving streams in the early 1900s, it caused water to move faster. The corps wanted the water to move faster because they thought slow-moving water would breed malaria, said Foote.
But instead of preventing malaria, the straightening of the nation's streams caused the rapidly moving water to erode stream bank walls faster.
"What the creek is doing is trying to eat itself back into an 'S' shape," said Foote.
In addition, rapid development in the area transformed formerly pervious, or permeable, surfaces such as pasture and farmland into impervious shopping, residential and business developments.
"As development increased, so did the amount of stormwater runoff," said Foote. "That's what caused our creek banks to erode and caused the muddy creek water that threatens aquatic habitat."
An excess of sediments in the water can threaten aquatic life by falling to the bottom of the creek and covering fish and dragonfly eggs - a major part of the food chain, said Foote.
"We can't do anything about the sediments that are already in the water," she said. "What we can do is make changes to reduce the amount of sediment going into our water in the future."
Creek restoration efforts include carving an "S" shape back into area creeks, planting erosion-preventing vegetation, removing trees at risk of falling into the creek and planting trees to create a shade canopy over the water.
"Long term, we want to reduce thermal pollution. Open creeks in the summer get way too hot for many critters that naturally live in the streams," said Foote, adding that it may take 10 to 15 years before those trees will be able to provide adequate shade.
But the changes, particularly the uprooting of trees deemed unhealthy by the county, have some residents upset.
"This is supposed to be a restoration project, but for right now it looks like destruction. What I see now is what used to be a path through a pretty wooded area, and all of a sudden there's so much cleanout that it seems like they've disrupted a lot of habitat," said Cedarfield resident Judy McClendon. "I'm eager to see where we're going to see the good out of this."
Added Gerry Dole, who walks the greenway at Cedarfield daily: "There's a lot of openness that wasn't there before. It was more natural with the trees the way it used to be."
Other residents have suggested to Foote that they see the project as mostly aesthetic and question why the money is not going to another cause, such as schools. Every mile of creek that is restored costs the county $1 million.
What residents don't always understand, said Foote, is that the creeks in their backyard connect directly to the county's main drinking-water source. And the more pollutants in the water, the more costly it is for the county to remove them. That has a direct effect on taxpayers' wallets, she said.
In addition, the county received a $1 million matching grant from the federal stimulus program, and that money can be applied only to projects geared toward water improvements. Money from state water quality and county stormwater fees matched that grant.
Currently, the county is working on Torrence Creek's main stream - a 7,700 foot stretch starting at McCoy Road in Huntersville - and Tributary 2 - a 9,000-foot stretch starting at Interstate 77 and heading downstream to Bradford Hill Lane.
The restoration of those two sections of the creek will prevent 958 tons of sediment from clogging the streams and Mountain Island Lake every year. That's enough dirt to fill 48 dump trucks, said Foote.
The county will then turn its attention to restoring Tributary 1, a stretch that begins just south of Gilead Road and heads toward I-77. But Foote said that part of the project will remain in the planning stage until the county can get an adequate number of easements from property owners.
"We're working extremely hard to reduce sediment and bacteria in our creeks," said Foote. "When we complete a project, some residents aren't initially happy with the end result. But give it a few months or years, and they'll see a dramatic difference."