A City and Its River: Durham's Ellerbe Creek Watershed (2021-2022)


Urban watersheds are dynamic ecological systems shaped by social, physical and ecological forces. A long history of systemic environmental racism and economic inequities has 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 percent 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 inequality and income inequalities alter the structure and public access to the benefits of urban ecological systems. 

Project Description

This project seeks to merge the fields of biology, environmental chemistry, urban ecology and social sciences to better understand how the distribution of ecological benefits and risks overlap with the distribution of economic and social capital of Ellerbe Creek watershed residents. 

The project team will work closely with the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association to design research and outreach projects to address three questions:

  • What types of green space within the Ellerbe Creek Watershed support the highest animal diversity? 
  • What new and legacy contaminants persist in water and accumulate across biota in Ellerbe Creek? 
  • How are ecological amenities and chemical risks distributed relative to social and economic capital within the watershed? 

Three subteams will work in tandem to address each question. The Ecological Team will do a comprehensive assessment of the greenspace within the Ellerbe Creek Watershed using field surveys and geospatial analysis. Field research will involve mapping vegetation structure and setting up camera traps and acoustic surveys to count animal species in a carefully selected sample of parks and preserves within the watershed. 

The Chemical Contaminant Team will collect water and biological samples throughout Ellerbe Creek and its tributaries throughout Durham. The team will comprehensively assess the diversity of new and legacy contaminants in water and in floodplain predatory spiders from at least three sites. They will select several targeted compounds to examine in streamside spiders within each of the greenspaces sampled above. 

The Socioeconomic Team will determine how the ecology and contaminants within the Ellerbe Creek Watershed map on to Durham neighborhoods. They will investigate if correlations exist between greenspace in communities and race and class.

Learn more about this project team by viewing the team's video.

Anticipated Outputs

Peer-reviewed journal publication(s); public article; two educational signs; data for dissertations; network development

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this project team will include 3-4 graduate students and 3-5 undergraduate students. 

A Ph.D. student with expertise in economics or public policy (from those departments or from NSOE) and 1-2 Master of Environmental Management students are preferred. Undergraduate students from any major are welcome to apply. Students should have interests in geospatial analysis, environmental justice, economics and public policy.

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. 

Undergraduate students will learn to design and conduct independent research within the broader project. Students will be encouraged to develop honors thesis projects, to present results at academic conferences and to coauthor papers and reports. This collaboration will provide opportunities for engagement activities such as public science events, presentations to Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association board members and creating educational materials for broad audiences.

Team members will be introduced to a range of technical skills (land cover analysis, demographic analysis, field biology, chemical analyses) and will gain experience in field work, scientific writing, data analysis and community collaboration.

Team members will meet weekly to coordinate plans. In Fall 2021, the team will meet on Thursdays from 11:30-12:00 p.m. (Weekly meetings may be extended to 12:30 p.m., as needed). Each month, the entire team will convene for paper discussion and reporting out of findings and plans to Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association leadership. 

For the optional component in Summer 2021, 2 undergraduate students and 1 master’s student will be hired as full-time research assistants for 10 weeks from June 1 to August 6, 2021.

Steven Anderson will be the team’s project manager.


Summer 2021 – Summer 2022

  • Summer 2021 (optional): Field work and mapping; lead session for ECWA Watershed Academy
  • Fall 2021: Continued field and lab work; early data analysis
  • Spring 2022: Data analysis; preparation of report and outreach materials; formal symposium for ECWA; creation and installation of signage at ECWA preserves
  • Summer 2022 (optional): Ph.D. students continue and expand project

This Team in the News

Quartet of High Achievers Take Home 2022 Outstanding Undergraduate Awards

Master's Student Honored for Her Outstanding Mentorship

See related team, A City and Its River: Contaminant Risk in Durham's Ellerbe Creek Watershed (2022-2023), and Data+ summer project, A City and Its River: Contaminant Risk in Durham (2022).


Image: Dye Branch in Walltown, Durham, North Carolina (Dye Branch is a small creek that is part of South Ellerbe Creek, a tributary of the Neuse River), by Willthacheerleader18, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0


Team Leaders

  • Steven Anderson, Arts & Sciences-Biology
  • Jonathan Behrens, University Program on Ecology–Ph.D. Student
  • Emily Bernhardt, Arts & Sciences-Biology
  • Jasmine Parham, Arts and Sciences–Biology–Ph.D. Student
  • Sarah Raviola, Arts and Sciences–Economics–Ph.D. Student

/graduate Team Members

  • Sophia Bryson, Master of Environmental Management, Water Resources Management
  • Aislinn McLaughlin, Master of Environmental Management, Water Resources Management
  • Sashoy Milton, Master of Environmental Management, Ecotoxicology & Environmental Health
  • Rebecca Murphy, Master of Environmental Management, Water Resources Management
  • Kelly Shen, Masters of Public Policy
  • Yingfan Zeng, Master of Environmental Management, Water Resources Management

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Sarah Bailey
  • Maggie Dercole, Environmental Sciences (BS)
  • Alberto Garcia Perez, Chemistry (BS), Russian (AB2)
  • Lindsay Hu, Civil Engineering (BSE)
  • Rishab Jagetia
  • Natalie Katz, Public Policy Studies (AB)
  • Maria Morrison, Political Science (AB)
  • Xitlali Ramirez
  • Thomas Ross, Political Science (AB), History (AB2)
  • Kaley Sperling
  • Lindsey Weyant
  • Huiyin Zhou

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Lee Ferguson, Pratt School of Engineering-Civil & Environmental Engineering
  • Nishad Jayasundara, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy
  • Heather Stapleton, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy
  • Christopher Timmins, Arts & Sciences-Economics

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Keshi Satterwhite, Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association
  • Rickie White, Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association