MCAS CHERRY POINT, NORTH CAROLINA --
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
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
the project is far from complete.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.