Friday, December 12, 2008

A Walk in a Creek & the Woods

A couple of weeks ago I went for a walk with a friend in the Sweetwater Preserve right at the southern city limits of Gainesville. The 125-acre property was recently acquired by Alachua County Forever, our awesome county land conservation program that I volunteer with.

We were going to walk on the trails, but as we stood looking at the creek I thought back to my childhood and thought maybe we could recreate the feeling of those endless hours watching turtles, crawdads, minnows, tadpoles, and frogs and searching for shark's teeth, arrowheads, and anything else of interest.

We took off our shoes, rolled up our jeans, and climbed down the least-eroded part of the bank into the creek.

The water was low, and we sloshed downstream in shin-deep water.

I hoped we'd see a snake. This is perfect water moccasin habitat. Not that I want to encounter a moccasin -- just see one.

But the creek was a disappointment. The banks were severely eroded.

Tiny pieces of broken glass were embedded in the sand. Trash snagged in exposed tree roots. It was depressing. And the thing is, you could tell that glass and trash wasn't dumped there. It had washed there from upstream. (More on this later.)

The only life -- the only life -- we saw was an invasive nine-banded armadillo. No snakes. No minnows. No tadpoles. No turtles. No birds!!

Disheartened, we decided to try the woods. We climbed out of the water and went walking barefoot on the trails.

And guess what we saw?

Nothing. No life. Except, of course, nine-banded armadillos. The best part of the walk was the autumn color.

So, what gives?

Gainesville is covered by a network of creeks, many of which have been paved or built over. One of my best friends is the creeks coordinator for the city. She told me that the remainder are so polluted that they can't be saved. Evidently, our sewage treatment plant dumps treated wastewater into the creeks. This water is full of nutrients, which suck all the oxygen out of the water, starving plants and animals. This is totally legal.

Gainesville's stormwater, on the other hand, is not treated. Anything on the streets, sidewalks, etc., that gets washed or dumped or thrown or blown into storm drains goes straight into our creeks.

I still remember the day my creek died. I was about ten. I grew up playing in Hogtown Creek in a less-developed part of my neighborhood. One day, we noticed houses were being built along the creek. The development was to be called "Mill Pond." There was no pond, as far as I know. What there was was a clear, healthy, life-filled creek. And they built right up to the edge of that creek.

One weekend a friend and I rode bikes down there to spend a few hours catching minnows and tadpoles, and the creek stank. The water was filled with green slime, and the sand along the edges was orange. There were no animals, no fish, no invertebrates. I tried going back a few times, but nothing ever changed. I figure that development company threw some new lawns out, applied a bunch of fertilizer, and whatever was extra just washed into the creek, killing everything that was there.

When I wrote the city about how sad my recent visit to Sweetwater Creek made me, I was advised to wash my hands after playing in my hometown's creeks. Apparently, I could catch any number of feces-related diseases.

Sometimes, a walk in the woods isn't all it's cracked up to be.


Kim said...

Interestingly, I saw my first-ever soft shell turtle in that same creek when I was out on a bike ride with a friend. But other than the turtle, there were no signs of life.

Mindy Wisdahl said...

I spent almost every day after school playing in the creeks and woods off of NW 8th Avenue when I was a kid. It was great but even then the water was really dirty. I remember being told not to swim in it because my friend got a skin infection (yuk). But back then there were still lots of animals and crawdaddies to be found.