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A Feeder of Rock Creek
NIH Creek To Be Restored, Cleaned

By Rich McManus

Photos by Rich McManus

On the Front Page...

The humbly scenic little waterway known as the NIH Creek, which meanders northeast across campus from an outfall underneath the corner of South and Center Drives, is going to get a long-delayed restoration in the next year or so. Authorities from the Office of Research Services recently finished a year-long study of the creek and are now proceeding to the design and construction phase of the $700,000 project aimed chiefly at stemming a serious erosion problem.


Last profiled in the Oct. 6, 1987, issue of the Record, the NIH Creek — not to be confused with a sister stream known as Stony Creek (or Stream G), which also runs northeast, but from the south boundary of NIH property across the lawn of the National Library of Medicine — suffers a badly eroded shoreline, allows too much sediment to wash into its waters, and is marred by an astonishing assortment of manmade junk including fractured concrete curbing, tumults of asphalt paving, and myriad blocks of masonry plonked into the watercourse in old and unlettered attempts at responsible stream management.

Through a culvert built in 1957, the NIH creek exits campus under Rockville Pike near Cedar Lane.

"In the fifties, sixties and seventies, rubble was dumped in there to firm up the streambed and banks," said Lynn Mueller, chief of the grounds maintenance and landscaping section, Division of Engineering Services, ORS. "Of course nowadays that's not acceptable...We're going to attempt to return the stream to its natural setting, and make it more attractive to wildlife."

Fauna at the creek includes stickleback minnows, crawfish, ducks, beavers visiting from Rock Creek Park and lots of birdlife, Mueller said. "But the creek is not very conducive to life in its present shape, especially when we get these big afternoon storms and washouts."

A pair of mallards paddle upstream in the vicinity of Bldg. 21.

He said NIH sits on very soft soil, and that water rushing off rooftops and parking lots during summer thunderstorms builds quickly, rushing — with its load of sediment — virtually unimpeded into the creek. Particularly in the vicinity of Bldg. 21 south of Wilson Drive, where the creek has several "S" turns, erosion is worst. Back in 1972, during Hurricane Agnes, the stream in this location overflowed its banks and flooded Bldg. 21 up to the main floor. The renovation project should prevent that from ever occurring again, Mueller said.

"The quality of the landscaping will also be greatly enhanced," he added. "A variety of fruit and nut trees including walnuts, hickories and pawpaws have been planted along the creek in the past 3 years. The willow trees that line the bank were put there specifically to stop erosion — they were planted in the early 1980's, and have been pretty successful. But the water is still more powerful than the trees."

Once the project is complete in summer 2002, Mueller anticipates the return of birds, fish and butterflies to the creek. "It's been a long time coming to give this creek the attention that it needs," he said.

After the daylight headwall near the intersection of South and Center Drives, there are 13 headwalls along the creek, which is about a half-mile long. Maintenance workers clean the trap in the foreground on an as-needed basis.

Hummocks of asphalt and concrete pollute the stream course near Bldg. 21.

Mueller said he gets email from advocates of the creek whenever something is amiss there. "We don't have much control over what gets dumped into the creek upstream from NIH and passes through here," he lamented. The stream originates in the neighborhoods west of NIH in the vicinity of Suburban Hospital and is then piped underground until it daylights at the outfall near Bldg. 21. "If there's something wrong with the creek like oil, litter or being muddy, folks automatically assume NIH caused it."

The restoration project is being led by J.P. Licud of the Design, Construction and Alteration Branch, DES, who has gotten consulting help from Montgomery County, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and from the same architecture/engineering firm that helped the Navy manage its portion of Stony Creek on the other side of Rockville Pike from NIH.

"We need to control the quality of water going into the creek," he said. Eventually, he envisions placement of "sand filters" on the banks of the creek, through which runoff will perk before reaching the stream itself. "The filters are 18 feet long, 2-3 feet wide and 4 feet deep," he explained. Six of the filters will be buried near Bldg. 21, a project that will involve some minor excavation, and perhaps the temporary closing of a few parking spaces.

There are places where the creek is barely six inches across (foreground); and places where it widens to more than 8 feet (center).

This shot of Bldg. 1 with the creek in the foreground makes NIH seem like a sylvan place for conducting biomedical research. The creek has also been known as the NIH Stream, and, as one wag dubbed it, "the East River."

Licud has already appeared, through the auspices of NIH's Office of Community Liaison, before community groups to present the project, and reports that neighbors, particularly on the Cedar Lane side of the campus, are delighted. "They are saying, 'That's good...That's great...It's about time.'"

The design phase of the project starts in April and will last about 6 months, followed by a construction phase expected to end sometime next summer. The recently completed study phase was extensive as engineers carefully measured erosion rates, and evaluated water quality including temperature, pH level, and levels of dissolved solids and bacteria. Some of the measuring apparatus can still be seen poking through the turf near the intersection of Cedar Lane and Rockville Pike, where the NIH Creek exits campus through pipes under the pike, then heads toward Rock Creek, the Potomac, then Chesapeake Bay.

An aisle of weeping willow trees, not yet in bloom, lines the bank of the creek. They were planted in the 1980's as a way of reinforcing the banksides.

An octagonal slab of sidewalk sits in the middle of the creek near parking lot 31C.

The remains of an old dam include this low wall and a half-buried portion on the opposite bank. There were four small fish ponds along the Bldg. 21 section of the creek, dating back to the original Peters Estate. Bldgs. 16 and 16A were built about 1930 and the creek was dammed up for the ponds. The ponds and dams were all gone by the early 1950's, except for a few relics.

Oddments of concrete line the bank north of lot 31C.

Bashed-off accretions of masonry flank this headwall near North Drive.

Granite boulders buttress the east bank of the creek near parking lot 31C.

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