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. 

This project sought 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 examine the 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; and how ecological amenities and chemical risks are distributed relative to social and economic capital within the watershed.

Three subteams worked in tandem to address each question.

  • The Ecological Team completed a comprehensive assessment of the greenspace within the Ellerbe Creek Watershed using field surveys and geospatial analysis. Field research involved 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 collected water and biological samples throughout Ellerbe Creek and its tributaries throughout Durham. Team members assessed the diversity of new and legacy contaminants in water and in floodplain predatory spiders from three sites.
  • The Socioeconomic Team examined how the ecology and contaminants within the Ellerbe Creek Watershed map on to Durham neighborhoods, including the correlations between greenspace and the racial and class profile of the community.

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


Summer 2021 – Summer 2022

Team Outputs

Journal publication

Ellerbe Creek Watershed Data

This Team in the News

Meet the Winners of the 2022 DST Launch Seed Grants

Urban runoff threatens water quality. Infrastructure changes could help.

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

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Natalie Katz, Economics (BS)
  • Rishab Jagetia, Environmental Sci/Policy (AB)
  • Lindsay Hu, Civil Engineering (BSE)
  • Maria Morrison, Political Science (AB)
  • Alberto Garcia Perez, Chemistry (BS)
  • Xitlali Ramirez, Environmental Sciences (BS)
  • Thomas Ross, Political Science (AB)
  • Maggie Dercole, Environmental Sciences (BS)
  • Kaley Sperling, Environmental Sciences (BS)
  • Lindsey Weyant, Biology (BS)
  • Sarah Bailey, Civil Engineering (BSE)
  • Huiyin Zhou, Cultural Anthropology (AB)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Nishad Jayasundara, 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