The Following is an Interview with Chris Dreps (C), executive director of Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association, conducted by Meg Buckingham (M), senior marketing & communications officer for the Foundation.  

M: Chris, can you tell me a little more about Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association, and why our readers should care about your mission?

C: Sure! ECWA is 16 years old, started in 1999, and the mission has been the same since the beginning – to protect and restore Ellerbe creek, and make it an asset to the people of Durham and the Triangle. It touches the entire Triangle, it reaches to Falls Lake, which is Wake’s water supply, so it’s a regional issue.

People locally in Durham should care because it’s our creek. Everyone has their own creek, or wetlands nearby and it’s where your kids will grow up and you can either see it as a liability or an asset, but really, it can benefit your life. If you’re a naturalist, playing in streams and running around outdoors, that local creek will be the place you first interact with nature and the water. For many of us that’s a critical part of our lives. Locally, we believe that the creek should be a special place, experience and a part of our quality of life. We are protecting places that have been forgotten in the past, and helping restore those places that we want to enjoy.

Outside of Durham, people should care because as Ellerbe Creek changes, so does your drinking supply. It seems to be a struggle – balancing the desire for clean water and economic growth. It’s not easy, and it takes people rolling up their sleeves and getting dirty. Cleaning up the creek, bringing the resources and working together. It’s really that simple, but it’s hard work to preserve 340 acres and growing.

M: Do you think that your partnership with the Foundation this year has helped you make a greater impact?

C: Where to start?! We have received three grants this year – and honestly, it’s amazing. I have to say that it feels like we are really a great match with the Foundation and its donors. We are working hard to protect a resource important to a lot of people, so it’s not a big surprise to me that the Foundation would back that, but I was surprised at just how much. In terms of our land protection and stewardship work, the grant has made a big difference. One huge step in our organization happened in November, when I deposited the first grant dollars, to start our stewardship endowment, the first time we’ve had an endowment! It’s all because of the Foundation’s support through the Environmental Conservation grants – a huge step for our organization, one step closer to meeting national standards as a strong, certified land trust.

Restoring one of the Triangle’s most urban streams is not just about protecting land, we’ve known that for a long time and it’s why we focus intentionally on green infrastructure and the Foundation’s grants have allowed us to breathe a huge sigh of relief this year. We’ve been building sets of recommendations for Durham as to how we can restore drinking quality and this grant has allowed us to not miss a beat in terms of advocacy work – holding meetings, being in the neighborhoods, being able to sit with folks and know that our time is being covered. When we talk with business and government leaders about what can be done for a cleaner Durham, we know it’s supported. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about how I’m carrying out the Foundation’s work.

Because of the Foundation’s help, the dreams we’ve had are coming true – for us and the public in mind, for sure. As a growing organization, what people don’t know about us, is that about 5 years ago we were 2 half time people supporting a group of volunteers. Now we have six staff people and growing, and while it’s wonderful for work to come to fruition, it can be stressful and hard on everyone to grow – and that just cannot happen without donor and Foundation support. Most grants don’t support capacity. We are really grateful for this support and partnership.

M: So, if I’m passionate about the environment and want to get involved, how do I do that?

C: There are small ways to be involved all the way up to being an integral part of the organization. We are a grassroots organization in a lot of ways. Go and enjoy a hike we sponsor or come to an event. Become a volunteer – right on our website – and join hundreds of volunteers each year building rain gardens, cleaning trash, protecting the property, and making sure the forest and wetlands are healthy and taken care of.

Or you could join a committee! We have seven active committees, those are the volunteers who shape and plan the hard work of the organization.

Give back more than time and talent with resources – support the organization with your dollars to ensure the protection of the creek for the future. Individuals represent about 35-45% of our total operating revenue, so our donors are really vital to us as well.

M:  Chris, go ahead and get on your soapbox for a moment. What would you say is the single biggest environmental issue that you would like our readers to learn more, get passionate, about?  

C: Wow. Well, I think it would be the idea that as humans, we need to learn how to say no. Our ability to travel when we want, buy what we want, go where we want, build too much, own too much. We’ve managed to master so many things with technology and our brains and now it’s time for our brains to learn how to control those things and not overdo it. I really believe that. It’s part of why I so strongly believe in the organization I work for, part of that is recognizing that nature and the world around you is really special and that you don’t need to get in a plane and fly half way around the world, to experience something incredible, you can do that right here every day. You can experience nature and that wonder right here. I feel pretty strongly about that.

Overconsumption fuels poverty, inequality, consumption, pollution. I’d want people to think about that.

The Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association received grants for three projects – building a community nature preserve at a section of Ellerbe Creek called The Rocks, engaging the community to improve the creek’s water quality though “green infrastructure,” and supporting the expansion of the Pearl Mill nature preserve.