SILER CITY — A toy dump truck, 12 tires and a rusted bike were just part of the trash haul at Loves Creek on Saturday.
The annual cleanup along the Siler City greenway was organized by the Loves Creek Watershed Stewards (LCWS), an organization with a mission to restore the ecological function of Loves Creek and provide economic and community benefits through environmental stewardship. Saturday was the second time the group had organized a cleanup along the creek.
All told, the six volunteers collected more than 70 gallons of trash — filling six trash bags to the brim to accompany the mountain of tires and other tchotchkes they found along the way.
“Everything flows downstream,” said Pascale Mittendorf, one of the attendees. “You wonder how something like a bike or tire could end up this far away, but the water is a powerful thing, especially when it floods.”
Saturday’s volunteers included LCWS members, a student and staff member with Communities In Schools of Chatham County and former Chatham County Commissioner Diana Hales.
As the trash pickup began, Diana Montgomery, an attendee Saturday, donned waders and scooped trash in the waste-deep muddy waters of Loves Creek on Saturday. The cleanup was only scheduled to last an hour and a half, but once Montgomery got in the flow, it was tough to get her to stop filling the bright orange trash bags.
“Sometimes these cleanups make you feel like our waterways will never get clean,” Montgomery said. “There’s just so much trash.”
The equipment for Saturday’s pickup came from the Triangle Community Foundation, which provides grant funding to nonprofits across the region. Thanks to them, the town of Siler City and the Eno River Association, LCWS had gloves, waders, trash bags, wheelbarrows and trash pickers.
Walking along the greenway, the LCWS crew knows the watershed intimately. They know where the trash will settle and the best spots to make the maximum use of their time in the creek. That intimate knowledge also means they know when something is amiss.
Along the path, the trash gatherers spot shining yellow flowers in thick beds. They’re eye-catching, but don’t let the looks fool you, Mittendorf warns.
“That better not be what I think it is,” Montgomery said.
The bright flower is the invasive species fig buttercup — a plant so destructive to native plant life that it’s illegal in several states, including South Carolina.
According to the North Carolina Invasive Plant Council, the dense patches of the flowers don’t allow other plant life to grow. And its quick growth means it spreads like wildfire.
The stewards identify the plant immediately and snap photos to submit to the state as part of a campaign to identify the intruder and rip the flowers out of the ground.
“This is really not a good sign,” Mittendorf said. “It really suffocates the native plants here.”
Without those native plants, it also reduces the likelihood of the natural habitat recovering in Loves Creek, she added.
Pollution, runoff and mismanagement of stormwater — along with the invasive species and flooding — are issues the stewards said they’d like to see addressed in Loves Creek.
“Loves Creek is the stream that all these other tributaries flow to,” Montgomery said. “If you have a stream in your backyard in Siler City, chances are it flows into Loves Creek.”
From Loves Creek, that water flows into the Rocky River, which is one of the main drinking water sources for residents on town water.
The town of Siler City seems to recognize the problem too.
Last week, Siler City Community Development Director Jack Meadows shared the town had been awarded a grant from Golden Leaf Foundation to address existing flood problems and increase resilience to future flooding impact in the face of new development.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designated Loves Creek as “an impaired stream” for aquatic life. This means the watershed has a scarcity of aquatic invertebrates such as stoneflies, mayflies and caddisflies. The primary cause of this habitat degradation is stormwater runoff.
Runoff, or rainfall that flows over the ground surface, can create a pollution problem because as rain flows across impervious surfaces, it picks up pollutants like oils, fertilizers, litter and other waste. That pollution then ends up in Loves Creek.
“The primary problem in this part of the county is nonpoint source pollution,” said Catherine Deininger, LCWS member and founder of Biocenosis, which promotes responsible community stewardship of natural resources. Non-point source pollution refers to diffuse contamination of water or air that does not originate from a single discrete source.
“This is an old industrial town with a lot of agriculture,” Deininger said. “Those things lead to more sedimentation and pollution in the waterways.”
With Wolfspeed on the way to Siler City and more development coming, Deininger said there are still ways to address the problem. Namely, through smart and intentional development that keeps stormwater in mind. She would like to see a reduction in the amount of impervious surface proposed for new developments, and stormwater control measures like improved stream buffers and rain gardens.
Deininger’s environmental consulting firm has previously contracted with the town of Siler City to improve Loves Creek Watershed.
LCWS is also helping the watershed beyond the occasional trash pickup. The group has received grant funding for several projects to improve the water quality in Loves Creek and its tributaries.
Those projects include the planting of creek buffers at Boling Lane Park to help reduce flooding and help aid the habitat of local wildlife. LCWS has also provided feedback on Siler City’s stormwater plans and future water-related infrastructure projects.
The group also works with local students to do water quality testing at Loves Creek and teach them about the results.
“The existing habitat and the quality of the water is an indicator,” Montgomery said. “We care about the life of the stream, but we also care about what it means about other factors like pollutants and so on.”
By the end of Saturday’s cleanup, volunteers had muddied their clothes, gotten twigs in their hair, and even scraped themselves fighting through the thick trees around the creek. But to them, it was all worth it for an act of environmental stewardship in their town.
LCWS will continue to advocate for floodplain restoration, proper water resource planning and serving the community through service projects like Saturday’s cleanup. For more information visit https://goo.gl/d6m3PK.