Up on a Crippled Creek 

A firsthand look at Memphis’ most ravaged urban waterway — Nonconnah Creek.

litter1.jpg

The oldest evidence of human activity in Memphis — a spearhead designed to slice through a mastodon's thick hide — was discarded at Nonconnah Creek 13,000 years ago, behind what is now the Sam's Club on Winchester. The rain of litter on the creek hasn't slowed much since then.

The newest evidence of human activity in Memphis is a plastic Sprite bottle. And right now, it's blowing out of the back of a pickup truck on Bill Morris Parkway. During next week's thunderstorm, it will be flushed down our storm-water system to join thousands upon thousands of other plastic bottles that migrate down Nonconnah Creek and into McKellar Lake.

I followed another bottle flotilla earlier this month, steering my Coca-Cola-red polyethylene canoe down Nonconnah Creek with local environmental activist Scott Banbury.

"I don't really see the litter anymore," Scott said, as we scouted a couple of the small streams that form the headwaters of Nonconnah Creek 10 miles east of Olive Branch, Mississippi.

click to enlarge Littering the Nonconnah: basketballs, soccer balls, and footballs — enough balls to stock a sporting-goods store - GARY BRIDGMAN
  • Gary Bridgman
  • Littering the Nonconnah: basketballs, soccer balls, and footballs — enough balls to stock a sporting-goods store

Scott is as accustomed to paddling urban streams like the Nonconnah as he is exploring untamed rivers. In fact, he recently loaded his kids into a canoe and followed a small drainage stream — adjacent to his home in Vollintine-Evergreen — into Cypress Creek. There is a litter problem in those streams as well and occasional leaking sewer lines, which recently have been repaired.

Near the beginning of Nonconnah Creek, close to Highway 72 at Bill Morris Parkway, the stream is bridged by a small beaver dam, which also holds back occasional windblown trash, mostly plastic shopping bags.

We slipped the canoe into the creek under the Forest Hill Road bridge and passed by the Dan B. Turley Nature Area and Shelby County's Nonconnah Greenbelt Park, where we found beaver and raccoon tracks, along with a coyote's "calling card," what looked like large cat prints, and a couple of wood ducks. The clay banks are high here, obscuring good views of the forest, so I like to examine the texture of ancient logs that stick out from the walls near water level. They had been sealed in that soil for 2,000 years before erosion uncovered them.

click to enlarge A beaver dam along the Nonconnah; the creek’s headwaters east of Olive Branch - GARY BRIDGMAN
  • Gary Bridgman
  • A beaver dam along the Nonconnah; the creek’s headwaters east of Olive Branch

We skidded over a lot of sand in the shallow water. Very important sand. This far east, one layer of our sandy water table actually meets the surface, instead of hiding under several hundred feet of protective clay, like it does in town. Whatever goes into this sand in eastern Shelby and western Fayette counties goes directly into our water supply.

From Germantown to the Mt. Moriah bridge at I-240, Nonconnah Creek looks pretty natural, if you overlook its unnatural straightness. Between 1936 and 1946, local governments dredged and channelized the creek from Bailey Station to Highway 51 for flood control, straightening out the S-curves, but upstream of Mt. Moriah Road, there was little or no follow-up maintenance, except at bridge sites, resulting in partial renaturalization.

I have probably logged over 100 canoe trips on different stretches of the Wolf River, but this recent excursion was my first time to put a paddle in Nonconnah Creek. I wasn't particularly moved by the most pristine sections or by the most degraded sections. It was the middle area that brought back a flood of memories.

click to enlarge Scott Banbury - GARY BRIDGMAN

I grew up near Mt. Moriah Road in the 1970s, and I loved to explore the rough, wooded trails along the creek with my friends. I smoked a cigarette by Nonconnah Creek. The most accessible bike trails took us downstream from there, stretching toward Perkins and Getwell roads, where we could witness the great damage (or progress, depending on your point of view) that began to unfold.

The development boom in southeast Memphis and unincorporated Hickory Hill had already begun, yet the land next to the gateway arteries, Perkins and Mt. Moriah, was largely empty, being in the Nonconnah's natural floodplain. So developers built their own high ground all along the east bank, creating a more stable foundation for such permanent beacons of civilization as the Mall of Memphis and its minor satellites: the strip of auto dealerships known as the "Autoplex" and, of course, Platinum Plus, aka the "Mt. Moriah Performing Arts Center."

This already had happened downstream, more than once. A 1973 environmental impact report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Tennessee Department of Agriculture voiced a similar complaint (minus the go-go dancer reference) about the creek's lower sections, condemning the "present trend of developing the flood plain for maximum short-range returns. Unregulated and destructive practices of land development are rapidly depleting and destroying basin resources."

Also consider the warnings from former Memphis mayor James Malone, decrying the fate of the creek in his 1919 book The Chickasaw Nation:

"Application was made to convert all of Nonconnah and its bottoms into a drainage district, and some technicality has delayed the proceeding; but, sooner or later, the Gordian knot will be cut, and a dull ditch will be all that is left of the majestic stream, once known as Nonconnah."

click to enlarge Discards, a dead fish, and, at Nonconnah’s mouth, McKellar Lake - GARY BRIDGMAN
  • Gary Bridgman
  • Discards, a dead fish, and, at Nonconnah’s mouth, McKellar Lake

Earlier still, local resident Kathryn Farrow wrote this downer of a eulogy for the creek around 1900: "The city is growing south. The hammer of the construction corps and the whistle of the belt line disturb its quietude, but reminiscence ... is the only land that never changes. Muddy and overgrown, Nonconnah is an insignificant thing, it flows forever into the great Father of Waters ... its memories flow into oblivion."

Perhaps Farrow would have been cheered up a little to know that a lot of the future commercial real estate development upstream of her home would flow into oblivion instead of the creek itself.

Others began to notice what was happening to rivers and streams around Memphis in more recent decades, and many began doing something about it. In 1985, a routine permit request was filed to install an open-pit sand-mining operation on the Wolf River near I-40. Local conservationists, remembering what happened to Nonconnah Creek, objected to the plan and promptly formed the Wolf River Conservancy to continue protecting that river. I joined the conservancy in 1993, volunteering as a canoe trip coordinator and later joined its board. Whenever we made progress, I felt as though I was doing for the Wolf River what had not been done for my "home stream" when I was a kid.

While Scott and I were passing the tall, grassy ramparts that once supported the Mall of Memphis, I couldn't help karaoke-ing the Talking Heads lyric, "There was a shopping mall, now it's all covered with flowers," remembering that David Byrne wrote it from the point of view of someone who badly missed "civilization."

While there are indeed some wildflowers growing around the site, it would probably take a seismic event to revert that stretch of Nonconnah Creek to its true natural state, which would cause more problems than it solves.

In fact, expecting to restore Nonconnah to a pristine state is like hoping to raise fair-trade cranberries on the surface of Mercury. The creek never really stood a chance, hemmed in by the airport, expressways, and major railroads. All that transportation infrastructure increased pressure to develop the floodplain for industry and then for housing, which lured the retailers.

And it isn't the most lovable piece of water. The Nonconnah's headwaters are being hemmed in by suburbs, and its mouth is next to an oil refinery. Unlike the Wolf River, it never had a Raleigh Springs resort or a popular swimming beach. No Cotton Carnival royal barge landed at its mouth beneath a canopy of fireworks amid cheering crowds.

Happily, the Clean Water Act and the installation of a major sewer interceptor line along the creek has moderated the chemical pollution somewhat. But there is no excuse for the litter or for the fact that the creek is not very accessible for recreation in Memphis unless one is willing to trespass across warehouse properties or scramble down rocky bridge foundations.

Continuing downstream beneath Elvis Presley Boulevard, I-55, and U.S. 61, Scott and I couldn't help but notice that, in addition to all the food containers in the creek, we were surrounded by balls — enough to stock a sporting-goods store: soccer balls, basketballs, footballs, kick balls, submerged softballs, rubber dog-chew balls. For all I know, there were orphaned bowling balls slowly rolling through the silt below us. These represent involuntary littering. For every ball we saw, there is an empty-handed kid somewhere upstream, staring forlornly at the open storm grate or fenced drainage ditch that effected his ball's eventual flight to the Gulf of Mexico.

Approaching the creek's mouth at McKellar Lake, I was pleasantly surprised that we didn't see floating islands of Sprite, Fuze, Snapple, and Ozark Springs bottles blocking our way, but the stuff is out there, festooning large stretches of the shoreline, despite the 10,000 pounds of litter pulled out of the lake in March by volunteers with the Illinois-based Living Lands and Waters.

It probably won't take long for us to put another 10,000 pounds of trash into Nonconnah Creek. According to Scenic Tennessee and the Bottle Bill Project, Tennesseans consumed 4.5 billion beverage containers in 2005, only 10 percent of which are recycled. But if you can do like Scott Banbury and look past the trash and see the forest for the trees, it is a fun stream to navigate by canoe. But rake in a few Sprite bottles while you do it.

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