My View

Wading in the water with John Kent

May 21, 2013 

If there were a heart carved into a beech tree with John Kent’s name, it might read “John loves New Hope Creek.”

Every month for the past 23 years, John has dipped his monitoring equipment into her waters to test their health – dissolved oxygen, turbidity (cloudiness) , temperature, pH (level of acidity), nitrogen and phosphorous. Citizen science he calls it.

Keeping tabs on the health of a stream and creating a long-term record of it are integral to our understanding the impact that development is having on our drinking-water sources and natural areas. Our regulatory agencies don’t have the staff to do this intensive and detailed work on each stream, so those who love them take it on.

This is not glamorous work. Sometimes there is ice that has to be broken through or thick boot-sucking mud to contend with. Luckily for me that wasn’t so when I recently accompanied him one fair morning with his stalwart monitoring cohorts of 15 years, David and Judy Smith who are both retired scientists from Glaxo.

I met up with the trio at the Stagecoach Road parking lot off 751 in Durham. We rambled down a well-used path across the impoundment built to compensate for loss of wetlands when Jordan Lake was created. Dave whipped out his clippers to remove some blackberry stickers on our path.

John in chest waders carried a folding portable blue plastic table, the lab bench. In their backpacks, he and the Smiths held the tools of the trade, a series of monitoring equipment and testing kits to gather information about the water quality in the lower New Hope. This site in the swamp was furthest downstream of the six sites John tests each month along with those along N.C. 54, Chapel Hill Road, Erwin Road Turkey Farm Road and Old N.C. 86. Test results were normal, a few microorganisms, and surprisingly little phosphorous or nitrogen for a site right downstream from Orange Water and Sewer Authority’s wastewater treatment plant on Morgan Creek.

This year, Duke Master in Environmental Management student Jesse Howlington has joined John’s team. Her master’s thesis will be about which of these macroinvertebrates – bugs – are the best indicators of water quality. She told me that John’s passion for the creek helped her decide on this course of study. She asked her parents for a pair of chest-high waders for Christmas, but Howlington has not quite reached John’s level of camaraderie with the bugs as he told me, “Some of my best friends are cold-blooded, spineless, bottom feeders.”

So what makes a guy care so much about a stream?

For his whole life John, now 67, has been attracted to water. Growing up in Fort Wayne, Ind., his family had a rural cottage they retreated to regularly where he was always playing in the creeks. He completed every swim course at the YMCA by age 10 and was a junior lifeguard by 12, learning canoeing and swimming competitively. While a summer camp counselor in North Carolina he would hitchhike to the coast here whenever he had the chance. He was a big supporter of creating the Indiana Dunes National Lake Shore, the Midwest’s best beach and only sand dunes not at the ocean.

Five years after graduating Carleton College he came back to North Carolina to study city and regional planning with his mentor Dave Brower. Ten years after grad school, he ended up back in Chapel Hill and in 1986 his mom gave him a membership in the Audubon Society; he soon got hooked on birds and waterways.

John recalls that later in the ’80s an older New Hope Audubon member, Al King, passed the water-quality monitoring kit on to him during one of their monitoring stints at the old Hollow Rock Store site on Erwin Road. Then state water quality specialist, George Norris trained him. Shortly after that John began leading the regular monitoring there and at the old Chapel Hill Road site; soon there were six sites and they’ve been his ever since.

Now his name is all over the minutes of New Hope Creek Advisory Committee meetings; nothing about development in this corridor gets past his watchful eye. I was looking for some dramatic declines in New Hope Creek’s water quality commensurate with the intense development in the 23 years since he started the project. Not so much. The main stem of this creek is still surprisingly healthy. It will take people like John Kent to keep it that way.

Contact Blair Pollock at blairlpollock@gmail.com.

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