Saving Shades Creek

Sign on Greenway
- Photo Credit: Francesca Gross
Rock Vane Study Transects
- Photo Credit: Francesca Gross
El Paso Wildflower Preserve
- Photo Credit: Zac Napier

Shades Creek has seen some hard times (read Threats to Shades Creek), but this important stream is getting some help.

One of the biggest problems with urban streams is the increased speed and volume of water in the creek during rainstorms. This causes flooding and property damage, land loss due to bank erosion, and the destruction of wildlife habitats.

These problems came to the attention of Samford University’s administration in 2010 when they began construction of a running track and recreational facility adjacent to the creek. University officials were concerned with how quickly the stream was eroding into the facility’s property.

The typical fix for this problem is to fortify the stream bank with large boulders. However, the wall of rock can fail because it causes an increase in current speed near the bank. In addition, the rock barriers are unsightly and do little to improve the stream ecosystem besides reducing bank erosion.

Instead, Samford undertook a major stream restoration project to address the problem based on the success of the Little Shades Creek restoration in Vestavia. They hired an engineering firm to install a series of cross vanes in the creek. A cross  vane is a V-shaped formation of large boulders that spans the width of the stream. The point of the “V” aims upstream. The vanes reduce bank erosion by causing the water to slow down along the bank and speed up in the center of the stream. The boulders of the vane also provide much-needed habitats for fishes. The vanes are worth checking out – you can see them from the greenway across from the university campus.

Samford also sought advice from Auburn University scientists for managing the land adjacent to the creek. Exotic invasive plants such as Kudzu and Chinese Privet were removed and replaced with native plants, including River Oats, Red Maple, and Silky Dogwood. The roots of these plants now help stabilize the stream bank.

Another initiative to protect the creek was the establishment of the Wildwood Wildflower Preserve. This 47-acre nature preserve on the banks of Shades Creek  is just west of Interstate 65. The forest and its rich native wildflower diversity help protect the creek from further degradation by stabilizing the natural stream banks. The preserve was established with a partnership between the Freshwater Land Trust and El Paso Corporation. The land trust is a nonprofit organization that buys and protects lands in the region to improve water quality and preserve open space. This jewel on Shades Creek will be part of the extension of the Shades Creek Greenway Trail and the county-wide Red Rock Ridge and Valley Trail System.

A dramatic restoration effort downstream involved removing a dam created in the mid-20th century. The dam, which initially served as a bridge, was constructed by placing six railroad box cars across the creek. But the dam was presenting a hazard for canoeists and kayakers, causing streambed erosion, and possibly preventing fish migrations. At the urging of Friends of Shades Creek, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service organized the removal of the box cars. It was a major undertaking involving crawler-cranes and salvage experts and a partnership among several agencies and landowners.

If you want to learn more about the creek or help with its protection, consider going to one of the monthly meetings of the Friends of Shades Creek. FOSC is an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization advocating for wise stewardship of the creek. The group organizes an annual creek clean-up, leads canoe trips, and hosts monthly educational seminars and other creek-related educational events.

R. Scot Duncan