Third Fork Creek

Land that drains into Third Fork Creek is known as its watershed. The Third Fork Creek watershed is an older portion of Durham south of the Durham Freeway. It includes headwaters near Forest Hills and NC Central University. The creek continues southeast from there through Hope Valley and Woodcroft. Many of Durham’s residents live in the Third Fork Creek watershed. The Population density is the second highest of Durham’s watersheds.

Water from Third Fork Creek flows into Jordan Lake. From there it flows into the Haw River and then to the Cape Fear River. This river is the only one in North Carolina that empties directly into the Atlantic Ocean.

Watershed Improvement Plan
The Third Fork Creek Watershed Improvement Plan is designed to prevent future water pollution and identifies special projects that can help repair current problems.

Stream Water Quality
Stormwater Services staff tracks water quality at eight sites in Third Fork Creek. The health and cleanliness of the watershed is reported in Durham’s annual State of Our Streams Report.
In years when staff is able to take a wide variety of tests, the watershed is also given a grade. Third Fork Creek was last given a grade of 71 in 2014. This compares to a "C" letter grade.

This low grade was given because of:
  • Cloudy water from dirt washed into the creek
  • High fecal coliform (a bacteria associated with raw sewage) levels
  • High nutrient levels that can cause too much algae to grow
  • Poor aquatic life
The state decided that these water quality concerns keep Third Fork Creek from its intended uses by people and wildlife. The state added the creek to a list of impaired water bodies, also known as the 303(d) list. This means the city will need to take steps to find and reduce sources of pollution in the creek. The state also created guidelines, or a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) (PDF), to help reduce the cloudy water created by dirt washed into the creek.

Water from Third Fork Creek flows into Jordan Lake. Jordan Lake has recently had problems with algae caused by extra nutrients (such as nitrogen and phosphorus). The state has also created a TMDL (PDF), to help reduce the nutrients in the lake. Because of this, the city also tracks nutrients in Third Fork Creek.

Stormwater Projects in Third Creek
Water Quality Investigations
Stormwater Services staff investigates water pollution reported by other city employees and Durham residents. In the 2015 reporting year, staff found pollution sources in 29 investigations. They included:
  • Grease/cooking oil discharges
  • Sanitary sewage
  • Yard waste
  • Petroleum
  • Mobile car wash water

This is down from 51 investigations in 2014. Stormwater Services encourages neighbors to discuss and discourage putting trash, wash water, grease, or other pollution into storm drains. Anything that goes into storm drains does not get treated and, in this watershed, eventually washes into Third Fork Creek. Citizens can also call the Stormwater Hotline (919-560-SWIM) to report water pollution.

Outfall Screening
During winter months, stormwater services works on mapping the places where stormwater pipes empty into the creek. These locations are called outfalls. Since this is done during dry weather, whenever water is coming out of a pipe it is tested for pollution. In 2010-2011, staff focused outfall screening in the Third Fork Creek watershed. Staff inspected 281 outfalls and found eight pollution sources.

Dog Waste Stations
The City was awarded a grant to install dog waste stations in Durham parks. About 25 of these are in this watershed, many along the Third Fork Creek trail.

Residential Rain Garden Project
During the summer of 2012, the city continued the backyard residential rain garden project in the Third Fork Creek watershed, assisted by 4 students from the Mayor’s Summer Youth Program, and funded by a 319 grant. The students determined appropriate sites by calculating rain garden size and evaluating percolation, and they constructed 24 rain gardens during the summer; volunteers installed plants in the fall. These rain gardens capture runoff and help naturally treat pollution.

Forest Hills Park Stream Restoration
This project restored 3,000 feet of Third Fork Creek in a highly urban area. The stream banks were rebuilt. The new lower, curvy banks will help connect the stream to overbank areas called floodplains. A buffer of native shrubs and trees was planted. These plants will help treat pollution and prevent erosion. The restoration plan (PDF) and a recent project update are available online, although both documents are fairly technical.

For the latest update on this and other stream restoration projects in the city, check out the Stream Restoration Project Fact Sheet (PDF).

R.N. Harris Stream Restoration
Lead by the Durham Soil and Water Conservation District, this project restored almost 1,000 feet of Rocky Creek at R. N. Harris Elementary School. The project also included a large rain garden (also called a bioretention cell) that will help slow the flow of runoff reaching the creek and naturally clean the pollution in it. Teachers at the school use the site as an outdoor classroom for environmental education.

Water Quality Recovery Program
The Water Quality Recovery Program for Third Fork Creek carries out the state TMDL (PDF). The city prepared this plan in 2009 and submitted it to the NC Division of Water Quality. The city will submit updates with the annual NPDES permit report starting in 2010. Water from Third Fork Creek flows into Jordan Lake. Because Jordan Lake has a TMDL for nutrients (such as nitrogen and phosphorus), the WQRP for Third Fork Creek also tracks nutrients.

Get Involved
There are many ways for you to help protect the health of Third Fork Creek. You can adopt a portion of the creek or volunteer to label storm drains. There are also 2 major stream clean-ups each year. Big Sweep is the 1st weekend in October and Creek Week is the last weekend in March. Email the public education coordinator for details.

Dedicated Groups
You can also join one of the many groups dedicated to protecting the health of our rivers and streams. The Haw River Assembly is active in this watershed.