Third Fork Creek

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Impacted Waters

Land that drains into Third Fork Creek is known as its watershed. The Third Fork Creek watershed is an older portion of Durham south of the Durham Freeway. It includes headwaters near Forest Hills and NC Central University. The creek continues southeast from there through Hope Valley and Woodcroft. Many of Durham’s residents live in the Third Fork Creek watershed. The population density is the second highest of Durham’s watersheds.

Water from Third Fork Creek flows into Jordan Lake and then follows the Haw River to the Cape Fear River. The Cape Fear River is the only one in North Carolina that empties directly into the Atlantic Ocean.

Third Fork Creek flows into Jordan /lake, the Haw River, and then the Cape Fear.

Get Involved

There are many ways for you to help protect the health of Third Fork Creek.  You can adopt a drain or participate with NC Stream Watch. There are also two major stream clean-ups each year. Big Sweep is the 1st weekend in October and Creek Week is the third week in March. Email the public education coordinator for details.

You can also join one of the many groups dedicated to protecting the health of our rivers and streams. The Haw River Assembly is active in this watershed.

Stormwater & GIS Services encourages neighbors to discuss and discourage putting trash, wash water, grease, or other pollution into storm drains. Anything that goes into storm drains does not get treated and, in this watershed, eventually washes into Third Fork Creek. Residents can also call the Stormwater Hotline (919-560-SWIM) to report water pollution.


The health and cleanliness of the watershed are reported in Durham’s annual State of Our Streams Report. In years when staff is able to take a wide variety of tests, the watershed is also given a score. Third Fork Creek was last given a score of 64 in 2022. This compares to a "D" letter grade. This is down from 77 in 2021. This score was given because of:

  • Poor bacteria levels
  • Poor aquatic life
  • Fair nutrient levels
  • Good turbidity levels

These water quality concerns keep Third Fork Creek from its intended uses by people and wildlife. The State added the creek to a list of impaired water bodies, also known as the 303(d) list. This means the city takes extra steps to find and reduce sources of pollution in the creek. The State also created guidelines, or a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) (PDF), to help reduce the cloudy water created by dirt washing into the creek.

Water from Third Fork Creek flows into Jordan Lake. Jordan Lake has recently had problems with algae caused by extra nutrients (such as nitrogen and phosphorus). The State has also created a TMDL (PDF) to help reduce the nutrients in the lake. Because of this, the city also tracks nutrients in Third Fork Creek.

Watershed Improvement Plan

The Third Fork Creek Watershed Improvement Plan is designed to prevent future water pollution and identifies special projects that can help repair current problems.

Dog Waste Stations

The city was awarded a grant to install dog waste stations in Durham parks. About 25 of these stations are in this watershed, many along the Third Fork Creek Trail.

Water Quality Investigations

In the 2022 reporting year, staff found 43 pollution sources. This is a list of the pollution sources our team found based on investigations and stormwater hotline (919-560-7946) tips. The top sources of pollution identified within the city in 2022 were: 

  • private sanitary sewer discharges
  • improper yard waste disposal
  • erosion and sediment discharges
  • city sanitary sewer discharges
  • petroleum spills

See past summaries:

TMDL Response Plan

The TMDL Response Plan for Third Fork Creek carries out the state TMDL (PDF). Water from Third Fork Creek flows into Jordan Lake. Because Jordan Lake has a TMDL for nutrients, the Water Quality Recovery Program for Third Fork Creek also tracks nutrients.

Residential Rain Garden Project

During the summer of 2012, the city continued the backyard residential rain garden project in the Third Fork Creek watershed, assisted by four students from the Mayor’s Summer Youth Program and funded by an EPA 319 grant. The students determined appropriate sites by calculating rain garden size and evaluating percolation. They constructed 24 rain gardens during the summer. Volunteers installed plants in the fall. These rain gardens capture runoff and help filter pollution.

Forest Hills Park Stream Restoration

Working with the State of North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, this project restored 3,000 feet of Third Fork Creek in a highly urban area. The stream banks were rebuilt. The new lower, curvy banks will help connect the stream to overbank areas called floodplains. A buffer of native shrubs and trees was planted along the stream. These plants will help treat pollution and prevent erosion.

For the latest update on this and other stream restoration projects in the city, check out the Stream Restoration Project Fact Sheet (PDF).

R.N. Harris Stream Restoration

Lead by the Durham Soil and Water Conservation District, this project restored almost 1,000 feet of Rocky Creek at R. N. Harris Elementary School. The project also included a large rain garden (also called a bioretention cell) that will help slow the flow of runoff reaching the creek and naturally clean the pollution in it. Teachers at the school use the site as an outdoor classroom for environmental education.