Like all freshwater mussels, the brook floater and Savannah lilliput that live in Densons Creek are dependent on the kindness of strangers. The strangers in this case are fish like minnows and sunfish. The mussels produce tiny offspring, no bigger than a pin head, which attach to the fish’s gills. When the fish swims away with the young mussels attached, the mussels are carried to new locations where they drop off the fish and begin their life in the stream bottom.
But an old bridge running right through the North Carolina creek was blocking the flow of water, which made life a lot more difficult for the floater and the lilliput, which are rare and considered at-risk species.
“It was a 65-foot-long concrete slab with pipes in it, built in the 1950s,” explained Laura Fogo, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife program. “The water was supposed to flow through the pipes, but the pipes were perched so high the fish couldn’t swim through them.”
The result was a creek with poor flow, which led to more sediment, less clarity, higher temperatures and declining water quality. Those are all problems for animals that use the creek.
But the bridge, technically called a vented ford, served an important purpose, allowing logging trucks to move freely between Edwards Timber Company’s privately owned land on one side of the creek and Uwharrie National Forest on the other.
“Laura has roots in Montgomery County that go back nearly 110 years,” said Tom Augspurger, deputy field supervisor for the Service’s Raleigh field office. “She knows the people, land, history, plants, and wildlife of the North Carolina Piedmont.
“Landowners on both sides need that road for timber operations,” he continued. “So how do you design and build an alternative? You get everyone together on that road, listen to their interests and concerns as if they were your own, and then work together.”
Starting two years ago, Fogo began lining up partnerships to fix the problem. Eventually, Edwards Timber, the U.S. Forest Service, the Piedmont Conservation Council, Jennings Environmental, North State Environmental, Pittman Professional Land Surveying, J.T. Russell and Sons and EEE Consulting, all played a role in improving Densons Creek.
On April 25, they literally dropped the hammer. The Service’s Aquatic Habitat Restoration Team brought in two trackhoes, one with a hydraulic thumb bucket and the other with a hydraulic hammer, and began pounding the old bridge into rubble and hauling it away.
In May, phase two began when North State Environmental installed boulders, starting a little downstream from the bridge site. They created a natural channel with riffles, with gaps between the boulders to allow water to flow, and aquatic wildlife and mussels to move more freely. They also installed a “wet ford” at the site of the old bridge, which timber trucks can cross but which does not impede the natural flow of the creek.
“We realigned the road so that trucks can go through easier. Today, aquatic wildlife has significantly responded since the barrier was removed. Mussels, fish, snails, turtles and even the infamous beaver have returned,” said Fogo.
Sediment has cleared, so the water is cleaner. With less sediment, the water temperature has dropped, which is healthier for the fish and mussels.
Total cost for the project was about $250,000, with the Service contributing $159,000, and the other partners contributing $93,000 in cash and in-kind donations.
The Densons Creek project is actually the sixth such Partners for Fish and Wildlife project in five years in the Pee Dee River Basin, part of an overall watershed initiative to improve water quality, to benefit both wildlife and people.
The Partners program is the Service’s premier tool for promoting conservation on the privately owned land. The program, which is entirely voluntary, provides technical and financial assistance to landowners and others to help benefit threatened, endangered and at-risk wildlife.
On July 25, 2018 the partners of Densons Creek gathered at the new ford for a dedication ceremony. Speeches were given, but the day was also marked by the welcome sound of free-flowing water.