Rocky Branch Creek is the stream that runs a mile through the heart of NC State’s campus along Sullivan Drive and behind Carmichael Gym. It was once an unsightly ditch with the distinction of being the most polluted stream in North Carolina.
Today, the creek meanders through a floodplain, full of aquatic life, and serves as a model of restoration practices for the region.
Lucy Laffitte, science education specialist for UNC-TV, used the transformation of Rocky Branch Creek as a centerpiece for her thesis when she received her Ph.D. in forestry from NC State in 2010. And she has documented the work in a new education video for Quest, a web-based venture funded by the National Science Foundation to provide education on the science of sustainability.
Laffitte was working as a graduate researcher and sustainability coordinator for Centennial Campus when she first became interested in the stream restoration project. The Rocky Branch Creek transformation was well underway and the university was interested in working on House Creek on the College of Veterinary Medicine campus and North Creek on Centennial Campus.
What interested Laffitte was not just how the project changed the creeks but how it changed attitudes, and her Ph.D. thesis focused on how institutions learn.
“Institutions grow rigid by nature over time and are not as innovative,” she says, and the way to change that “is to bring people from the margins — a student, a faculty member — into the process.”
Working for Quest, which is a collaboration of public TV stations in six states, Laffitte wrote and produced the video showing how NC State gained a new appreciation for rainwater as the Rocky Branch project unearthed the stream from culverts, integrated the flowing waters into the landscape and created floodplains to capture and filter rainwater. That appreciation is reflected in the interest in rain gardens such as those recently constructed at Syme and Lee dorms, Laffitte says.
One of the most important parts of the creek restoration was removing most of the culverts, a process called “daylighting.” “You have to put creeks in sunlight or they’ll die,” Laffitte says.
Rocky BranchCreek is continuing to change attitudes as it serves as a model for urban creek restoration. A greenway along the creek features interpretive signs that explain the restoration concepts, and the creek itself is used by students and faculty at NC State as an outdoor teaching laboratory.
— Sylvia Adcock ’81