I live on the top of a forested ridge just over a mile down a valley that runs southwest and perpendicular to another ridge straddled by downtown Durham, one that also divides the community into two distinct watersheds with streams and rivers flowing either north and east or south and east.
This gives me great access to five of the dining districts that make Durham so foodie-friendly. It also gives me a great view of a challenge faced by the City of Durham.
Durham seems incredibly green but in the City there are now just 1.4 acres of trees remaining for every 1 acre of impervious surface compared to a ratio of 3 to 1 County-wide, and in each jurisdiction the two stats are moving in opposite directions.
The number of trees required to cleanse storm water just isn’t keeping pace with the growth of impervious surface such as roadways, sidewalks, parking lots and buildings, especially given the fact that the City is reforesting only a few hundred trees each year, net those it removes and without counting the vastly greater but untracked number surrendered to any one development.
County-wide, between 1976 and 2005, total impervious surface increased 512%, at a rate of 2.5 acres per day, outpacing population growth by 8 to 1. It is forecast that, unabated, development will average 3.91 acres per day between now and 2040.
Overall, Durham is planting far less than an acre of trees per year, while development is subsuming nearly 4 acres per day or 1,427 acres per year. Let me give an example for why, in my opinion, this negative 1,427 to 1 ratio matters so much.
Below a steep drop down the hill directly to the west of my house is an area where four ravines intersect and where my still-extremely active and 84-year-old neighbor tells me there have been severe drainage problems for the nearly 60 years she has lived on my street, according to her almost encyclopedia-like memory, predating when it was annexed into the City.
Down where the ravines meet, there is now a Thai restaurant and other shops where a grocery store was originally. Thanks to one of Durham’s celebrated local chefs, a former creamery, an old service station and a mostly single-story office building have been transformed into three very different restaurants that anchor one end of Rockwood which has evolved into one of Durham’s many thriving dining districts.
But the patchwork of storm drain culverts through that area, including one that channels a branch of Third Fork Creek under one of the buildings after it drains storm runoff from 228 acres, is causing a big problem for the City because the water funnels through a crumbling concrete culvert under one of the state-owned (NCDOT) roads crisscrossing those ravines just before it flows into Rockwood Park.
This situation has already cost chef Scott Howell dearly. He owns two of the restaurants in that area and helped inspire another and has already had to encase the culvert at great expense where it runs between two buildings he owns.
I became friends with Scott more than 20 years ago as I was jumpstarting the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau (DCVB) and he was young pioneer working to create Nana’s, one of the signature establishments on Durham’s food scene today, which is located near one end of the crumbling culvert.
Back then he even came to my house to cook-out one night for a group of other friends, but as it turned out he was detained due to work on the new restaurant and wasn’t able to arrive until I had gone to bed, because I too, was working equally long hour (but at the other end of the clock) to get DCVB up to full steam. Of course, he understood and carried on with the cook-out on my deck which was enjoyed by the group who remained.
Scott also went on to co-create Pop’s restaurant with two other friends of mine, Ben and Karen Barker, nationally-acclaimed chefs who only recently retired and closed the stellar Magnolia Grill in Durham, where Scott had studied as sous chef before striking out on his own.
I also have friends on all sides of the struggle of what to do about the flow of storm water, much of it generated from impervious surface, under a collapsing culvert in the ravines below where I live in Rockwood. I know how frustrating it must be for everyone involved. I also have recent personal experience with how flippant a few NCDOT officials can seem about local concerns.
A few there act as though state roads and their right-of-ways are like some kind of exempt state reservation where they run through communities. That is just bone-headed and the kind of thinking that is leading to problems similar to what we see along Erwin Creek in Charlotte where the state is permitting actions by out-of-state billboard companies that greatly exacerbate storm runoff issues.
The state recognizes local authority such as anti-litter laws and traffic enforcement along its right-of-ways. One would also think that it can see its way clear to recognize and respect local concerns about billboards, erosion and storm runoff and preservation of the vegetation so important to slowing and cleansing it, to name only two benefits.
Nearly 60 years is a long time for a problem to persist but the parties involved in this case, especially local and state governments, need to understand that they aren’t doing a favor for private interests, they are fulfilling a responsibility to the people of Durham.
Similarly, Durham needs to get serious about urban forestation.