Returning the flow: Little Alamance Creek continues to struggle against pollutants

Little Alamance Creek could be seen as a typical urban stream. But, a closer look reveals something is very wrong with this creek.

Almost the whole Little Alamance Creek watershed rests in an urban or residential area, where there are many impervious surfaces, which cannot absorb water.

With the high level of developments in the Little Alamance Creek watershed, impervious areas like parking lots and roads were on the rise, meaning the creek was taking in more pollutants than before.

Stormwater runoff is the No. 1 source of pollution in North Carolina. Other factors include fertilizer, automobile maintenance residue, pet waste and pesticides.

Graphic by The Times-News.

Graphic by The Times-News.

When it rains or when snow melts, the water flows downhill, collecting harmful pollutants before dropping into rivers and creeks. These contaminants add up over time and can have a major overall impact on the quality of water.

The North Carolina Division of Water Quality (DWQ), a section of North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), considers Little Alamance Creek an impaired waterway because it violates the Clean Water Act for impaired biological integrity.

Since there were no permitted discharges in the watershed, the DWQ conducted an analysis of the water in 2000 to find what was causing the pollutants. They realized the stressor was urban stormwater runoff.

The report for the 2000 Recommendations for Little Alamance Creek asked for the creek to be resampled and for the City of Burlington to address stormwater issues. The 2005 Recommendations were similar, with the addition of the DWQ working with “Burlington and Graham stormwater programs to reduce further impacts due to new development and to implement (best management practices) and restore the instream habitat in Little Alamance Creek.”

In 2006, the Piedmont Triad Council of Governments (PTCOG) partnered with Ecosystem Enhancement Program (EEP), an initiative of the DENR, to conduct a water quality assessment on the creek’s impacts and watershed requirements throughout the area.

Photo from

Photo from

This project was focused on developing a Local Watershed Plan (LWP) for Little Alamance Creek. After three extensive phases, the project was completed in November 2008. The teams had prioritized projects, programs and policies to restore and conserve Little Alamance Creek and had come up with ideas for restoration activities that would work for the large project.

Little Alamance Creek is one of the few creeks where the DENR is developing an alternative strategy instead of using the typical Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) process, which is usually implemented to reach the standards of water quality.

The Cities of Graham and Burlington, as well as the NC DWQ, requested “the opportunity to address the impairment through development of an alternative TMDL plan that, when implemented, will allow for the achievement of the biological integrity standard in Little Alamance Creek,” according to the DWQ.

Last August, Kathy Stecker, supervisor at DWQ, wrote a letter to Chris Rollins and Harold Owen, the city manager of Graham and city manager of Burlington, respectively, giving them a notice-to-proceed with the alternative approach for Little Alamance Creek.

The alternate method is called a Water Quality Assessment Category 4b. This alternative method is faster than a TMDL. It was also deemed more appropriate because a TMDL was not truly needed since, as it reads in the letter, the “other pollution control requirements are expected to result in the attainment of applicable water quality standard in a reasonable period of time.”

Susan Massengale, public information officer at the DWQ, said if the community is doing something to the creek that results in the same goal as the TMDL, and if the water complies with all water quality standards, a Category 4b demonstration would save money for the community.

“It’s a way to achieve what the TMDL would do before that TMDL is instituted,” Massengale said. “If you can do it, it’s a real benefit to the community and the waterway because a lot of times, these alternate strategies can get into place on a quicker time table.”

A big influence in the success of the Category 4b demonstration is how well the community works to make improvements, Massengale said.

“My understanding is that we have had a lot of really favorable feedback from Burlington and from that watershed, wanting to make the improvements to the way stormwater is managed,” Massengale said. “So, hopefully, that will yield a better quality of water in the stream.”

In preparation for Earth Day, the City of Burlington and the City of Graham organized two stream cleanup days, April 13 and April 20. Volunteers helped clean Bowden Branch Creek, a branch of Little Alamance Creek.

The Cities of Burlington and Graham invited local service groups, youth groups and residents to participate in the Stream Side Cleanup of Bowden Branch, which was sponsored by Elon University’s Lambda Chi Alpha Chapter.

With reductions in pollutant loading, sedimentation and stream erosions, Little Alamance Creek may be able to return to a healthy state. It will be important to note every small improvement, Massengale said.

But, the road of recovery for Little Alamance Creek will be long. It will last several permit cycles, each of which is five years. Stecker said she estimates the process to take ten to 20 years. There is a very small chance the creek will ever return to its original state.

“When we’re looking to see what the target is for the biology, we’re not expecting return to pre-development conditions,” Stecker said.

The DENR will not return to test the waters of Little Alamance Creek until they know the Cities of Burlington and Graham or the Department of Transportation has done something that would change the water’s quality. These three groups are all working to make sure the biological integrity of Little Alamance Creek meets the aquatic standards.

“In an urban area where the impacts have taken place over decades, until somebody takes action to address the stormwater impacts, there is no reason to believe it would have gotten better,” Stecker said.

Once an organization starts actively helping the creek, they will return to test the waters for improvements.

“(Impervious surfaces are) sending stormwater to this creek and to reduce the impervious cover, you might create some parking lots that have pervious pavements instead of impervious and putting in green areas so it would take some of the water in and stop some of the polluting impacts,” Massengale said.

The measurements of the aquatic life in Little Alamance Creek will directly reveal the progress and how close the people of Alamance County are to returning the creek’s biological integrity.


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