Third Fork Creek in Durham
, which, if followed to its final destination, dumps into the Atlantic Ocean, is one of the city’s dirtiest waterways. It is nearly a dead zone for fish and aquatic life, which may explain in part why I haven’t seen as many herons along its banks in Forest Hill Park.

The creek, which is on the state’s list of impaired waterways, runs through densely populated urban areas, the source of most of the pollution. Its headwaters are near Forest Hills Park and N.C. Central University and head southeast through Hope Valley and Woodcroft, into Jordan Lake, which flows into the Haw River, the Cape Fear River—and from there, 150-plus miles to the Atlantic Ocean.

Third Fork teems with human byproducts: bacteria associated with raw sewage, zinc and copper from vehicle exhaust, tire and brake lining wear that build up on the roads and then are washed into the stream by rain. People put grease and trash into the storm drains, which ends up in the creek.

The city has a watershed improvement plan, although it has not been updated online since late 2012, to restore Third Fork Creek. In Forest Hills Park, the city planted shrubs and trees to filter the filth, and lower stream banks to reduce erosion and runoff.

If you walk along the Third Fork, you’ll see as assortment of trash: the usual plastic bottles and bags, an errant tire. On a recent weekend, I found this toy police car submerged and stuck in the dirt. I excavated it with a stick and took it home. Then, remembering the part about raw sewage, I scrubbed my hands and laundered my coat and gloves.

You can adopt a portion of the creek or volunteer to label storm drains. To get involved, send a message to