A City and Its River: Contaminant Risk in Durham's Ellerbe Creek Watershed (2022-2023)


Urban watersheds are dynamic ecological systems shaped by social, physical and ecological forces. A long history of systemic environmental racism and economic inequities has had a destructive impact on biological diversity and human health in cities. 

The Ellerbe Creek watershed is Durham’s primary watershed, and is closely intertwined with Durham and Duke’s East Campus. The 37-square-mile urban watershed is highly developed, with 22% of the land covered in impervious surfaces such as roads and buildings. As in most human-dominated landscapes, wildlife and plant diversity is limited to fragmented greenways and patchy forest parcels, streams are stressed with high concentrations of pollutants, and socioeconomic legacies of racial and income inequalities alter the structure and public access to the benefits of urban ecological systems.

Project Description

Building on the work of the 2021-2022 team, this project team will work closely with the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association and local neighborhood representatives to design research and outreach projects on the distribution of socioeconomic capital, chemical pollution and ecological amenities throughout the Ellerbe Creek watershed. 

Team members will conduct aligned studies to address the following questions: 

  • How are ecological amenities and chemical risks distributed relative to social and economic capital within the watershed? (map subteam)
  • How does the loading of new and legacy contaminants vary across Ellerbe Creek and its tributaries? (contaminant subteam)
  • How does the risk posed by contaminant mixtures to sensitive aquatic organisms change throughout Ellerbe Creek and its tributaries? (ecotoxicology subteam)

The map subteam will explore how ecological amenities and chemical risks are distributed throughout the Ellerbe Creek watershed and how they relate to socioeconomic diversity (formerly redlined regions). Team members will use datasets and layered maps to explore what correlations exist between ecological amenities and chemical risks and what historical activities can explain some of these trends. 

The contaminant subteam will collect water and stream biota samples to assess the diversity of new and legacy contaminants. Team members will assess samples for water quality indicators and conduct detailed chemical analyses at the Duke Exposomics Lab to examine how the mixture of contaminants changes along the main stem and between tributaries of Ellerbe Creek.

The ecotoxicology subteam will examine the impact of contaminant mixtures on aquatic organisms. Team members will partner with the Duke Environmental Toxicology and Health Lab to run zebrafish assays on water samples to determine how stressed the Ellerbe Creek’s aquatic life is and whether contaminant mixtures correlate to toxicity measured in the assays.

Team members will work closely with community partners to identify opportunities to disseminate their research to the public. They will also prepare a formal presentation to the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association leadership and interested partners.

Anticipated Outputs

Peer-reviewed journal publication(s); public article for local residents; interactive webpage for sharing data with stakeholders; reports for community partners; data for dissertations and theses

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this project team will include 4 graduate students and 5 undergraduate students. Undergraduate and graduate students can come from a wide variety of fields.

Participants will learn to design and conduct independent research within the broader project and under the guidance of their team leaders. Team members will be introduced to a range of technical skills (land cover analysis, demographic analysis, field biology, chemical analyses) and gain experience in field work, scientific writing, data analysis and community collaboration.

Students will be encouraged to develop honors thesis projects, present results at academic conferences and coauthor papers and reports. The project will provide students with opportunities for developing engagement activities such as public science events, giving presentations to the ECWA board and creating educational materials for broad audiences.

Graduate students will lead each subteam, which will build leadership and collaboration skills. They will be encouraged to facilitate regular meetings with their individual groups and work together to facilitate multiteam meetings. 

Jonathan Behrens will serve as project manager.

See the related Data+ project for Summer 2022; there is a separate application process for students who are interested in this optional component.


Fall 2022 – Spring 2023

  • Fall 2022: Start synoptic surveys; undertake initial mapping; conduct chemical and ecotoxicological analyses
  • Spring 2023: Complete chemical and ecotoxicological analyses; develop reports and outreach plans to disseminate results to community partners and peer-reviewed journal(s)


Academic credit available for fall and spring semesters

See related Data+ summer project, A City and Its River: Contaminant Risk in Durham (2022), and earlier related team, A City and Its River: Durham’s Ellerbe Creek Watershed (2021-2022).


Image: Ellerbe Creek, by Nick Doty, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0



Team Leaders

  • Steven Anderson, Arts & Sciences-Biology
  • Jonathan Behrens, University Program on Ecology–Ph.D. Student
  • Emily Bernhardt, Arts & Sciences-Biology
  • Lee Ferguson, Pratt School of Engineering-Civil & Environmental Engineering
  • Nishad Jayasundara, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Alberto Garcia Perez, Chemistry (BS), Russian (AB2)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Heather Stapleton, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Max Cawley, NC Museum of Life and Science
  • Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association
  • Rickie White, Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association