Preparing for extremes in Nashville

Hit a year ago by one of the worst floods in its history, Nashville suffered the loss of more than 30 lives and over $1 billion of property damage.  Just three years prior to that Tennessee was in the grips of the 2007 drought, one of the driest years in a century with 500,000 citizens on mandatory water restrictions, damages to agricultural crops and rivers without enough water for navigation.  Scientists believe that severe floods and droughts will become more and more common as the impacts of climate change grow. So how can we ensure public health and safety, clean water supplies, economic security, and quality of life in the face of these extremes?

In March, Nashville Mayor Karl Dean announced Nashville, Naturally a 21st century approach to safeguarding Nashville’s citizens from future floods while also improving water quality, protecting wildlife habitat and preserving open space for recreation and beauty. Mayor Dean’s plan should be a model for other cities in the Southeast and nationwide. It follows recommendations of American Rivers’ report, Natural Defenses: Safeguarding Communities from Floods.  The three primary recommendations are to (1) protect healthy landscapes like wetlands, floodplains and uplands along river corridors that store water and offer storm protection, (2) Restore these landscapes where they have been damaged and (3) replicate natural systems in urban settings to ensure more water is absorbed into the ground and guard against flash floods, stormwater and sewage pollution.

Coincidentally and exactly a year from the 2010 flood, the Instream Flow Council held its biennial conference, FLOW 2011, May 2-4 at the Maxwell Millennium Hotel.  This international conference with more than 150 water experts evaluated the latest science, policy and outreach solutions to river flow issues that face the world.  As with Mayor Dean’s approach, the Instream Flow Council embraces the concept that we should work with nature, not against it.  The Instream Flow Council’s publication, Instream Flows for Riverine Resource Stewardship, offers expert advice to decision makers on how much, when and why water flows are needed for rivers and the communities that depend on them.  How water should be allocated during droughts and allowing connections to natural landscapes during floods are among their basic tenants.

Nashville  has certainly  been in the spotlight this month for setting a high bar when it comes to common sense water management and ensuring we improve clean water, public safety, and natural heritage for future generations.