|Aubrey Shepherd Outdoors|
Posted on 18 November 2009
Tags: campus, creek, environment, pollution
By Samuel Letchworth
From flash floods to erosion to watershed pollution, Mullins Creek on the UA campus poses serious problems for the Northwest Arkansas community.
Mullins Creek, also known as College Branch Creek, runs from Reid Hall to Lot 56 across the southwest quadrant of the UA campus. It’s located in such an area that its storm watershed flows off into both the Illinois and the White River, and it’s on the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of impaired streams.
Water channeled into Mullins Creek from roads, buildings, parking, etc., exceeds the streams carrying capacity – or the ability to maintain normal ecological functions, according to research done by the UA Community Design Center. In addition, the research found that excessive fertilizer and other lawn maintenance agents used on local landscapes drain to the stream, altering its nutrient composition and aquatic wildlife balance.
Photo by Larry Ash
“The problem with this stream is that it has no natural floodplains and pollutants are dumped, not filtered, into it daily,” says Jeff Huber, Project Designer for the UACDC. “Because it runs through campus, that stream is polluted with everything from oil to heavy metals, from things off cars to things off buildings. A lot of it is petroleum based.”
The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality assessments determined that Mullins Creek had the highest sediment load in the entire West Fork-White River Watershed. The first hour of stormwater runoff has a pollution index greater than that of raw sewage, according to UACDC research.
Perhaps the greatest threat Mullins Creek poses is to our own drinking water. “A storm occurs and that creek floods and runs off. It goes into the West Fork of the White River and it comes back into Beaver Lake,” says Huber. “Beaver Lake is where our drinking water comes from. If we don’t treat this here on campus, we won’t have a water supply.”
Despite all this, no environmental agency has a record of water quality from having ever tested the creek. Not the U.S. Geological Survey, not the EPA, and not any department on campus. Only sediment load evaluations have been done, and, those, infrequently.
The UA commissioned the Community Design Center to design a solution for the creek water runoff when the EPA starting putting the pressure on four years ago. The project is known as Campus Hydroscapes. The only stipulation from the university was that no parking spaces from Lot 56 could be removed, making the job that much more complicated. But the Center produced numerous designs wherein flood plains could be carved out of Lot 56 and earthen mounds could be introduced at the head of the creek, as well as deep-rooted vegetation. All of these, insists the UACDC, would be viable solutions to curb the problem and would cost under $1 million.
The UA has had the comprehensive, 117-page design for four years but has yet to put any of the plans into application.
Steven Luoni is the director of the UACDC. “Headwater conditions are critical to the health of a watershed,” says Luoni. “Because the stream runs underground beneath the football stadium and practice fields before ‘daylighting’ in the athletic valley, the creek loses its ecological capacity.”
The ecological duress of Mullins Creek is evinced in its wildlife, or lack thereof. Of 63 types of fish found in West Fork Watershed, only one type, the tiny Central Stoneroller, is found in Mullins Creek. “This is certainly an indication of water quality,” says Huber. “Once that last fish is gone you have almost no hope of restoring the system back to its natural state.”
Pollution isn’t the only worry. Excessive flow rates and stream bank loss of Mullins Creek now threaten walkways and bridges, including one on Arkansas State Highway 62, according to UACDC research.
Lot 56 is historically a wetland. As outlined in the Campus Hydroscapes project, Lot 56 would ideally return to a marsh and the problems posed by Mullins Creek would cease to exist. But the UACDC worked around the parking spaces.
“It is a challenge because we only have a limited amount of space to work with in solving this problem,” says Huber. “We can’t go in under the stadiums so we have to nip this at the head of the stream. The area we have to work with is a very small grid between Bud Walton Arena and the parking lot, but there are solutions for keeping contaminated water from running off of campus into rivers.”
The plan is a holistic one: Just let plants do their jobs. The Hydroscapes project calls for introducing plants that have deep fibrous material to allow water to be filtered through the sub-surface. The design explains that any healthy ecological system has a healthy microbial community handled by deep soil and deep rooting plants.
“Microbes are nature’s tillers,” says Huber, “And soil is the sponge of urban development.” The research used in outlining the Campus Hydroscapes plan indicates that if the proper vegetation were introduced to the head of Mullins Creek there would be a 90 percent reduction of water volume leaving the college site and the pollution index would be brought back 75 percent over time.
Whatever the reasons for the UA’s reluctance to green-light the project, Mullins Creek continues to become more impaired with every rainfall. “It is a huge burden to take a paradigm shift,” says Huber. “If you feed something to someone long enough they think that’s their diet. But it’s still unhealthy. Mullins Creek is unhealthy.”
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Samuel Letchworth - who has written 32 posts on The Arkansas Traveler.
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2 Responses to “Campus creek pollutes Fayetteville water supply”
Nick Brown says:
November 19, 2009 at 3:37 pm
The U of A’s stewardship of Mullins Creek is certainly not what it should be. But the title and the main theme of Mr. Letchworth’s story are misleading and not supported by scientific facts.
The university worked on our stretch of the creek in the 90s by creating a pool and riffle fall from the outfall beneath Maple Hill Apts to Maple St, by adding boulders and erosion control fabric in the Leroy Pond Rd to MLK Blvd stretch, and by re-forming the channel to better accomodate stormwater runoff. Since then, nature’s forces, increased opacity of the watershed that feeds the stream (i.e., building and parking lot developments at UA) and more intensive car and truck traffic by campus users have undone much of what worked well 15 years ago. It’s time to maintain and restore the creek to high integrity again, and we’re in the planning process of doing just that. I invite Mr. Huber, Mr. Letchworth and the campus community to collaborate with the Planning and Capital Improvements Division of Facilities Management and the Sustainability Council in developing a sound and effective restoration plan.
Mr. Huber’s suggestion that pollutants are dumped, not filtered into the creek is supported to some extent by fact (the Maple St to Leroy Pond Rd is an underground box culvert), but The Gardens and the greenspace north and west of Bogle Field do in fact provide some filtering of stormwater runoff before it reaches the streambed.
The story does not describe the pollution index by which one might claim that the creek is more polluted than raw sewage, but such a statement is misleading. It’s likely that hydrocarbons and some heavy metals are higher in Mullins Creek after a rainfall event than in some discharges of sewage effluent, but pathogens, antibiotics and chlorine-based compounds are almost certainly orders of magnitude higher in sewage than in Mullins Creek. Mr. Letchworth makes the claim that no agency or academic department of the university has ever performed chemical analyses of the creek’s water. How, then, can he say that it’s more polluted than raw sewage?
As for fish diversity in the creek, I’ve personally seen three species of fish (shiners, bluegill, bass) there over the past two years and I suspect that there are more, although I have not attempted scientific analysis of fish diversity. Whether the final individuals of existing populations survive current impacts has little bearing on the long-term potential to restore the ichthyological biodiversity or the overall ecological integrity of the stream.
Biodiversity conservation and climate change are the defining issues of our times, and I strongly support efforts to raise awareness, implement strategies and enact protections to reverse habitat degradation and species extinctions. The job is made more difficult when misinformation about pollution and biodiversity splatter the headlines.
Finally, it is unclear whether the notion that pollution from Mullins Creek threatens the quality of drinking water in Fayetteville comes from Mr. Letchworth or Mr. Huber. (”If we don’t treat this here on campus, we won’t have a water supply.”) Beaver Water District, which supplies water from Beaver Lake to over a quarter million denizens of NW AR, has never–in 38 years of delivering hundreds of billions of gallons of water to area residents–had a single instance of non-compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act standards or with State drinking water quality standards.
Director for campus sustainability
Adjunct assistant professor for geosciences
Amy Wilson says:
November 19, 2009 at 4:36 pm
Thank you for writing this article. This is an issue many folks have worked on the past several years. A follow up article providing some more in-depth information might include an interview with Melissa Terry (who once worked for Audubon and did work on Mullins) and connecting this situation with the World Peace Wetland (Aubrey Shepherd is a contact and Tyson Foods helped with this effort) nearby, that has been set aside but is an ongoing project that needs public support and understanding. World Peace Wetland Prairie is down Hill Street a ways (turn by Brenda’s Bigger Burger). Contact Melissa at firstname.lastname@example.org and contact Mr. Shepherd at email@example.com.