By Emma Castleberry
Roy Harris has lived in Asheville for 38 years, 34 of which were spent living on Bartlett Street, three blocks from a creek known by some as Town Branch. This creek is known as “Nasty Branch” by others, mostly those who live near it in the Southside neighborhood. “Nasty Branch is one of the most polluted streams in Western North Carolina,” says Harris. “Most of the drainage area is within my neighborhood.”
Nasty Branch once connected a series of thriving Black communities in Southside, providing a place for children to play during the summer months. During Urban Renewal, a racist program of land development in the 1950s, many Black residents were displaced from this neighborhood and the creek was destroyed with industrial waste. “Urban Renewal was supposed to correct some of these issues, but after 50 years this stream is still polluted,” says Harris. “Why?”
Harris recently joined RiverLink as a board member and he has been advising the organization on the Southside Community Stormwater Project, a collaboration between RiverLink and the Asheville Housing Authority. “This project will help clean up Nasty Branch by preventing polluted stormwater runoff from entering the stream,” says Renee Fortner, watershed resources manager for RiverLink. “The project will construct stormwater control measures at Erskine Apartments, an Asheville Housing Authority community in the Southside neighborhood.” These control measures will include rain gardens, bioretention cells and a wetland, all of which will capture and filter runoff from rooftops and parking lots that is currently poured directly into Nasty Branch via a concrete channel.
The project will also include the construction of other important community amenities, as identified by residents during stakeholder engagement events. These include walking paths, benches and shaded areas along the creek. “It is important that we clean up Nasty Branch so that it is a safe and accessible place for the broader community to connect with nature,” says Fortner. “Cleaning up Nasty Branch will help improve water quality in a section of the French Broad River that is popular for recreation, but also fails to meet water quality standards for bacteria.”
RiverLink is partnering with local nonprofit Green Opportunities to provide paid green jobs training through their new Go Corps program. Go Corps is an AmeriCorps program that pays members of marginalized communities to receive green jobs training through hands-on service projects. Members of Go Corps will help construct the stormwater features and community amenities.
The final design is funded by the Asheville Housing Authority, the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina’s Pigeon River Fund and Buncombe County’s Strategic Partnership Grant. Wildlands Engineering is expected to complete the final design in November. RiverLink is applying for grants to cover the construction costs. If funded, construction could begin in mid-2022.
This project has broader consequences for both the city and region “because poor people live in these areas and they deserve better,” says Harris. “Weekly, if not daily, I walk the banks of Nasty Branch. Today, I saw three families of mallard ducks, one deer and two muskrats. This project could serve as a model for how to clean up an area for generations to come. In my opinion, one of the first reparation projects should be cleaning up the Nasty Branch to restore it to its glory.”
For information or to support this project with a donation, visit RiverLink.org