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What’s in the water? Tennessee’s water pollution problems are becoming more widespread

Harpeth River
Posted at 1:36 PM, Dec 21, 2020

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — When Dorie Bolze wades into the Harpeth River, you can feel her excitement.

“I just like the way it’s a slow steady moving stream,” she said, before putting on a pair of boots and walking into the cold river.

The CEO of the Harpeth River Conservancy has spent years working to keep the river healthy, as it winds its way through much of Middle Tennessee.

“It’s right in people’s backyard, so they get to go out and enjoy it. They get to have a nature experience, it’s all natural,” Bolze explained. “So it’s a really unique place.”

But even though the Harpeth is one of the state’s most unique rivers, it has something in common with a growing number of Tennessee waterways. Several sections of the Harpeth are on a list of the state’s polluted waterways; a list that has gotten significantly longer over the last 10 years.

“Over half of our rivers are impaired”

Every two years, states are required to publish a report about the state’s water quality for federal regulators. The biennial 303(d) report lists waterways that are "impaired," meaning they are too polluted to support at least one of their uses. Uses can include recreation, fishing, conservation and drinking, among other things.

In 2010, Tennessee researchers said 32.4% of the river miles they tested were impaired. A decade later, in the state’s 2020 report, that number jumps to 55.4%, meaning more than half of the waterways that they sampled were too polluted to support their basic functions.

The most common pollutant in impaired rivers is e.coli, a bacteria that is tied to human and animal waste.

“I don't know about you, but I'd prefer not to swim or paddle in a river or stream that's polluted with human or animal waste,” Amanda Garcia said.

Garcia, who heads the Tennessee office of the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the state’s pollution problem is likely even worse than the report says, since researchers only sampled half of the state's rivers.

“We probably have a much bigger pollution problem than we’re even aware of,” Garcia said.

The charts below show the counties with the most impaired waterways and the top causes for pollution.

A decade of deregulation

In the 10 years between the 2010 and 2020 reports, state lawmakers passed several bills to loosen regulation on Tennessee waterways.

“We just have had an onslaught of rollbacks at the state level through our general assembly,” Garcia said.

One of the most controversial of those moves came in 2016, when lawmakers passed Senate Bill 1830.

The bill, which was pushed by the Tennessee Home Builders Association and opposed by several environmental groups, made it much more difficult for the state to regulate stormwater beyond what is required by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Supporters said SB1830 would remove burdensome restrictions on construction while critics argued the move makes it harder for state leaders to stop stormwater from polluting Tennessee’s waterways. The legislation easily passed through the legislature, and on April 22, 2016, then-Governor Bill Haslam let it go into effect without his signature, citing concerns about the bill’s environmental impact.

The next year, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 899, loosening regulations on large animal feeding operations. The law eliminated the state permitting program for many of Tennessee’s large farms and rolled back restrictions on how farms could dispose of waste.

In 2020, a move to deregulate decentralized sewer systems failed in the legislature after the coronavirus pandemic tabled many bills. Conservation groups expect the bill, which they argue will worsen water quality, to be introduced again in the next session.

“This is happening even though citizens like you and me are submitting complaints and trying to communicate that they’re smelling raw sewage in their backyard, or there are chicken farms nearby that are polluting rivers and streams,” Garcia said.

But state leaders at the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation don’t put the blame on lawmakers.

“We’re in communication with state lawmakers on what we feel will work and not work,” TDEC Water Quality Director Jenny Dodd said.

Dodd instead said the state’s booming population is the reason why water pollution problems are becoming more widespread.

“More of our streams are impaired for things that are more of a collective activities, like population growth, or agriculture,” Dodd said.

A Problem Throughout the South

Tennessee isn’t the only southern state struggling with water quality problems. The chart below shows the percentage of assessed rivers that are listed on their state’s 303(d) reports.

“What our neighbors do has an effect on us and what we do has an effect on our neighbors,” Garcia explained. “We’re blessed in the Southeast to have abundant water all around us... and I think we’ve perhaps taken it for granted too long.”

Hope on the Harpeth

In spite of growing statewide water problems, Dorie Bolze said the Harpeth River has become an aquatic success story in recent years, as the Harpeth River Conservancy has seen massive improvements to the river’s quality.

“It’s not as skanky as it used to be,” she said with a laugh. “It just doesn’t smell as much.”

“The river is now very enjoyable in the middle of the heat of the summer,” Bolze continued to explain. “It used to be you wouldn’t come down and enjoy the river in the middle of a hot summer because it wouldn’t be flowing, it would smell and it would be obvious it wasn’t a place to play.”

Much of the Harpeth has been listed on the 303(d) report for years, but now some sections are finding their way off the list.

“In Eagleville, where the river starts, there’s a whole section that’s now healthy and now off the list,” Bolze explained. “So it can be done.”

Bolze said that water quality victory came after a 20-year-long effort, coordinated between the Harpeth River Conservancy, local farmers and local sewer plants.

“It really requires everyone to get a sense that they’re all part of the problem and they’re all part of the solution,” she said.

“There’s a tendency to go ‘if it’s not something we can regulate, like a pipe, or a sewer plant or a subdivision, we can’t do anything about it,’” Bolze said. “But there are funds out there that can encourage or incentivize.”

But without changes at the state capitol, Garcia isn’t as optimistic.

“It’s hard to see it not getting worse,” she said. “Without stronger protections at the state level, I think that we are likely to see worsening water quality.”