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It is useful to look closer at what is right in front of us.

I once looked at the fish populations of the creek I had grown up with: Peavine Creek in Atlanta.  This stream’s watershed encompassed much of my life up to that point.  My home, my cousin’s home, my elementary and high schools, my stores, my playgrounds. The places I enjoyed going as a kid (Decatur) and as a teenager (Little Five Points).  I had always glimpsed this creek at bridges and along the roads, but didn’t have much direct experience with it, except as the wild edge of the nearby golf course.

In college, I took time to look at the fish populations throughout the Peavine Creek watershed.  Baited traps, (nonlethal) electro-shocks and  stream surveys revealed several things that had never occurred to me about the water that had drained from my life, all my life. 

First, I had no idea all this wildlife was so close to home,.  Not just chubsuckers, pumpkinseed, and smallmouth bass, but water snakes, crawfish, and snapping turtles.  

Second, the abundance of species was highest where oxygen in the water was highest, in cool, shaded parts of the stream or at the bottoms of cascades.

Third, the diversity and abundance of the wildlife in the creek was dependent on the development history and condition of the streamside (“riparian”) forest around each section of the stream.  Adjacent branches of the stream were different based on the presence of a dam, a road, a parking lot, or a woodlot next to the stream.

The reaches of the stream depended on the  watershed and the conditions of their downstreams for the quality of the fish communities.   25 or 30 1-foot-long chubsuckers thrived in a neighborhood I had always biked through, under a severely eroded bank outside a curve in Lullwater Pasrk, in that deep pool.  We counted them all in hipwaders from a respectful distance away.  No shocking that day.
This was not a pristine stream.  My favorite childhood and teenage hangouts were almost completely paved with roads, parking and roofs,.  All the best commercial centers, like Little Five Points, Decatur and the Dekalb avenue Industrial corridor, were at Peavine Creek’s headwaters.  Nearly all of the watershed was developed in .5 to 3 acre residences, and Emory’s Campus and village were the paved cherry near the outlet of the creek.  Peachtree Creek and the Chattahoochee would not get a real break from storm runoff, scour, sewer overflows and outlets for dozens of stream miles, just in time for the agricultural runoff of manure, feritlizers and pesticides to start up.  Of course by then it was half Alabama’s problem.  Suckers.

With every rain, my beloved Atlanta sent a fresh plug of rushing stormwater all the way down two branches of Peavine Creek, scouring its banks and fouling its waters. The sand scoured from those banks fell out on the streambed, choking eggs laid every year by the fish I was suddenly interested in.  That’s why we were so surprised to see the fish numbers and sizes that we did.  Only where the conditions were right.

This has informed the rest of my career, and I am nowhere near honoring that initial revelation: that cities and suburbs can harbor unexpected and rich wildlife.  Only if we develop correctly, with a mind to both real estate and nature.  The deep or wealthy suburbs have even healthier streams, but they have larger concentrations of parking, roofs and road, too.  Peavine creek drains some of Atlanta’s most enjoyable and valuable neighborhoods, with an almost walkable density, proximity and mix of residential, retail and commercial.  I was able to live there without a driver’s license until I was 22.

Our transportation choices have real impact on the  streams where we jettison our water.  The state of the art in stormwater management has improved for new developments, with retention ponds built in every neighborhood to shave off the peak flood of all but the largest storms.  But departments of transportation get a free pass for all but the largest knots of concrete.  This is why I am now a transportation planner, to see how to give transit, bike and pedestrian modes a chance against the much faster, farther, more convenient car.  For every passenger in traffic, we pave 1,100 SF.  Pavement designed to stay dry by jettisoning its water to the nearest ditch or stream.  In a light rain, each car’s pavement  will jettison almost two thousand gallons to the local streams.  By comparison, the area per passenger is 50 SF for rail transit, 170 SF for bikers, and 30 SF for walkers.  One of the best things we can do for our nation’s waters would be diversifying transportation.  How do we do that?

I am interested in answering that question.  But I am still working at my job, biking and walking and mostly driving around in a new watershed in Virginia now.  Whenever I walk over a bridge or culvert, I stop and peer into the water, looking for movement.    I get excited by sunfish.

Creek Chubsucker
Illustration: Joseph R. Tomelleri,