Photo Information

Members of a construction crew make final adjustments near the end of the initial construction stage of a stream restoration project at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point. Only weeks before, this piece of ground was the site of a dysfunctional concrete culvert that did a very poor job of routing storm water runoff from an air station housing area to the Neuse River. The Cherry Point Environmental Affairs Department tackled this project in effort to clean up the inefficient site and to improve water quality in the Neuse. The project will soon move into its next stage with a series of plantings throughout the stream’s riparian zone. (Photo by Jessica Guilianelli)

Photo by Jessica Guilianelli

Cherry Point environmental scientists bring stream back to life

23 Sep 2015 | Mike Barton Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point

From a distance, it looks like just about any other tiny stream winding its way through a small hollow to the broad, murky river at its end.  The water, only a trickle now in the late summer heat, is crossed here and there with long early-morning shadows from the surrounding sweetgum and longleaf pine and the occasional oak that line the top edges of the shallow, grassy ravine.  It’s a quiet place, and on the breeze you can hear the faint laughter of children as they play in close-cut yards no more than a stone’s throw from the creek.

 But what makes this tiny sliver of water in a back corner of Cherry Point’s Grant’s Landing housing area different, is what you don’t see.  It’s the missing … well, for lack of a better term … mess that once made this beautiful slice of the air station a virtual eyesore.

 Little more than a month ago, if you had found yourself crossing this idyllic patch of ground, the dominating feature was an ugly, unnaturally angular concrete culvert that was a sure sign man was up to his same old tricks.  Its purpose was simple enough … to provide storm water runoff from nearby residential streets to the Neuse River below.  But it was clearly a failed product of pure practicality and function that ignored the lessons Mother Nature had been teaching about engineering since Day 1.

 In short, it just didn’t work.  It often filled with debris that backed water into filthy mosquito-breeding pools, or was lined with litter carelessly discarded by young explorers naturally drawn to the nearly subterranean sidewalk.  It was Picasso … when it should have been Renoir.

 In nature, it seems, streams pretty much just make themselves.  They rely on geology and gravity and weather and, especially, time.  They are so good at it that their most basic aim has become a human philosophical idiom – “to take the path of least resistance.”  So, the smart human stream builder will simply ask, what would nature do?

 That’s where people like Jessica Guilianelli, a natural resources specialist, and others from Cherry Point’s Environmental Affairs Department come in.  Partially driven by a long-standing federal policy to ensure “no net loss” of wetlands due to economic development, it also happens to be the kind of project they live for; to take a piece of ugly human engineering and return it to a natural and logical state.  They try to follow nature’s basic lessons and hope it gives them a passing score.

 This particular project began when housing residents complained of the poor drainage and its related consequences, which led the EAD team to investigate the site and to seek possible solutions.  It may sound like a reasonably simple task – just remove the culvert, introduce plants to help check the resulting erosion and voilà – you’ve got a natural creek.  But as with most things that nature has been doing for eons, we tend to discover that it’s just not simple at all. 

 Geologists have been wrestling with the science of stream restoration for decades and have learned it is an extremely complex process.  A stream, they have discovered, is not just a sliver of water cutting through the landscape, but a complex ecosystem that includes the plants and sometimes even animals that surround it and live in it.  The stream’s riparian zone – or the interface between the land and the stream – is a symbiotic partner that supports, and is supported by, the stream itself. 

 Guilianelli and her team waded through a river of past research that relied on lessons learned by some who have made it their life work.  One of their key influences was renowned hydrologist David L. Rosgen, a pioneer in the science and art of stream restoration.  Rosgen developed processes to help determine the necessary characteristics of various kinds of streams, which he classified based on the wide range of those characteristics.  Would the streambed need to be steep or nearly level, deep or shallow, built on bedrock or gravel or silt or sand?  Would it need to be straight or sinuous?  What kind of plants should grow in its vicinity?  What would be its source?  These and many other questions must be answered during the planning for a new stream.  In the end, it would have to be something that had a chance to work under local conditions.

 There were other goals too.  “It will give us the opportunity to be good neighbors by improving water quality in the Neuse,” said Guilianelli.  The idea is that this new stream, unlike its solid, manmade predecessor, will allow for the appropriate filtration and distribution of upstream nutrients as they travel along its meandering course.  Much of the material that finds its way into this creek from the streets above will be better deposited in the surrounding earth than flowing directly into the river below. 

 “We finally narrowed it down to a set of characteristics that are common to this region and this specific ecosystem,” said Guilianelli, who worked with McAdams Company, a Durham, North Carolina, engineering design firm; and River Works Inc., a sub-contracted river restoration construction company based in Raleigh.  “Obviously, the more it works like other natural streams here, the more successful we feel the project will be.”

 If you measured the duration of the project from the time the old culvert was first begrudgingly pried from the earth to the shaping, filling and, finally, the planting of the first thin grasses lining its muddy banks, it lasted only about four weeks.  If you add the time it took to plan, finance, schedule and complete the work, the period would be closer to three years – more than a lifetime for many of the creatures that are already calling this place home.  Like the fluorescent green dragonflies, the pair of screeching killdeer or the careless yellow butterflies who are all effortlessly competing for airspace in this quiet oasis.  And like the blue crab the size of a child’s hand that is sidestepping along the water’s edge in view of a tiny squadron of exploring minnows. 

 When you reach the place where the young stream melts into the quietly flowing river, you can begin to see the reward for all of this effort.  It’s not just the clear water that blends gently into the river’s tiny waves under the watchful eye of two tall skeletal trees – hard, gray sentinels that have watched over this place through its many transformations during passing generations.  It’s also the same sense of peaceful isolation that is in the DNA of every secret garden.

 But the project is far from complete.  

 The EAD team’s ultimate goal is to have a broad range of plant species growing along this serpentine watercourse much like you would find in a completely natural setting.  They want this to be a place where neighborhood families can explore or just relax on a pretty day – a little pocket of nature near their own backyards.

 “We’re definitely not done here,” says Guilianelli, standing atop the short bluff near the head of the newly designed stream.  “We will have to monitor its condition and continue to introduce other plant species as the stream matures.” 

 This is where Guilianelli’s quiet enthusiasm for this project bubbles out of her like a remote mountain spring.  She has been involved in nearly 20 stream restoration projects prior to this, but this is her first at Cherry Point, and it brings with it some unique challenges, such as the unpredictable effects of the Neuse River’s natural and wind-driven tides.  “I look forward to learning how the backflow of river water will affect the stream, how the influx of tidal water will change its appearance.” 

 Guilianelli takes in the full view of the waterway as it snakes its way to the river below – its canvas still has plenty of room for the paints she plans to apply over the coming months and years.  “It’s a dynamic system, it’s always changing, and we’ll need to make sure we are allowing it to do its thing, allowing it to stabilize and still maintain that connection to the Neuse.”

 That is, of course, the biggest question of all.  Will it hold up to the test of time?  Who knows, but, for now, the improvement is staggering.  Even to Guilianelli, who watched as it slowly transformed from a nearly useless concrete-clad scar on the natural environment to its present, infinitely more pleasing state, it’s more than just an “E5” (a highly sinuous stream with a sand bottom on the Rosgen scale) – it is a beautiful attempt to admit nature had it right the first time.