Feb 06, 2017

Continuing Education

Auburn University project rehabilitates urban stream

The Parkerson Mill Creek watershed is located in Lee County in east-central Alabama. Land use in the 9-sq-mile watershed includes urban, residential, industrial and agricultural applications, and encompasses the city of Auburn, Auburn University and surrounding areas. The headwaters of Parkerson Mill Creek originate in Auburn’s urban core and flow through the Auburn University campus.

Pictured above: The east branch of Parkerson Mill Creek emerges from underground pipes into a natural channel near Auburn University's Wellness Kitchen. 

Like many urban streams, Parkerson Mill Creek suffers from flashy hydrology, streambank erosion, non-point source pollution and general neglect. Auburn University faculty and staff expressed interest in using the stream as an outdoor classroom for education, research and outreach. As permitted Phase II MS4 entities, the city of Auburn, Lee County and Auburn University also were interested in improving stream conditions.

An informative sign near the creek serves as a passive educational opportunity, informing passersby of the restoration. 

Identifying Issues

In 2010, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System was awarded a watershed planning grant from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM). Stakeholders from local governments, private industry, faculty, staff, students and interested citizens worked together on the Parkerson Mill Creek Watershed Project. They outlined concerns, suggested solutions and developed a timeline of projects based on visual inspection, morphological characterization, chemical assessments and bio-assessments.

  • Priorities identified to improve water and habitat quality included:
  • Implementing storm water quality and quantity control measures;
  • Identifying failing infrastructure contributing to pathogen loads; and
  • Improving streambank stability through enhancement.

ADEM awarded the project a Section 319 implementation grant in 2011 to implement watershed best management practices and education. ADEM also completed a total maximum daily load for E. coli in 2011.

Using Section 319 funds and matching support, Parkerson Mill Creek Watershed Project stakeholders implemented measures such as bioretention cells, rain gardens, permeable pavement, grassed swales and pet waste stations throughout the watershed. Bacteriological monitoring identified stream segments compromised by failing infrastructure or illicit connections. Stakeholder engagement and education projects included marking storm drains, conducting litter cleanups, distributing pet waste bags, removing riparian invasive plants and planting native plants to increase awareness of the stream’s connection to the community.

Prior to restoration, the creek faced flashy hydrology, streambank erosion, non-point source pollution and general neglect. 

Opportunity for Improvement

In 2014, an opportunity to improve Parkerson Mill Creek’s streambank instability and minimize threats to infrastructure was identified during construction of a new dining facility, the Wellness Kitchen. The east branch of Parkerson Mill Creek emerges from underground pipes into a natural channel at the Wellness Kitchen site. The stream channel was actively eroding, had invasive species as the predominant vegetation and was considered an unappealing eyesore.

During planning meetings for the Wellness Kitchen, representatives from the design firm Goodwyn, Mills and Cawood Inc. and Auburn University recommended that stakeholders from the Parkerson Mill Creek Watershed Project be invited to partner on a stream enhancement project. The project goals were to improve stream stability while considering water and habitat quality, create an outdoor classroom for research, education and outreach, engage and educate stakeholders, and improve stream aesthetics in a high-profile campus center.

There were several constraints associated with the project. The stream is bordered by the new Wellness Kitchen on the left bank and a parking lot for the Beard-Eaves Coliseum on the right bank. The drainage area measures approximately 0.23 sq miles, and the land use is approximately 90% urban, resulting in flashy stream discharge estimated at 230 cu ft per second for a 2-year storm event. The group proposed a green infrastructure approach for the 300-ln-ft reach at the Wellness Kitchen.

North State Environmental Inc. was retained to construct project elements that include an energy dissipation basin at the outfall and three boulder cross vanes to step stream energy down and redirect high flows from the streambank to the center of the channel. A floodplain bench was constructed and native plants were planted at the stream edge and along the floodplain for temporary and permanent vegetative cover. An outdoor classroom was constructed overlooking the floodplain at the downstream section of stream.

Project goals for the Parkerson Mill Creek enhancement project have been met. Since its completion in 2014, the stream has experienced two major flood events and several smaller bankfull events. The stream project elements have withstood and adjusted to these events with minimal concerns.

Further Education

The stream project is included in formal education, such as class lectures, tours and labs. Numerous non-formal education and engagement tours, workshops and presentations also have been conducted through groups like the Alabama Cooperative Extension System Water Program. Signs have been placed along the stream project for passive education.

The stream has been transformed from an eroding channel dominated by invasive species to a more stable ecosystem with native vegetation. Future challenges include management of invasive species that spread rapidly along riparian corridors. Continued education and outreach to visitors and students is important to the project as it changes each season and the canopy trees grow into their potential. Auburn University’s investment in this project continues through coordination with the Parkerson Mill Creek Watershed Project.

Parkerson Mill Creek in July 2005, after Hurricane Dennis

About the author

Eve Brantley, Ph.D., is water resources specialist for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System and associate professor for the Department of Crop, Soil & Environmental Sciences at Auburn University. Brantley can be reached at [email protected].