Tennessee’s Most Endangered River of 2015 Finds Success

The Harpeth, Tennessee’s State Scenic River, is an immediate victory due to America’s Most Endangered Rivers.

Harpeth River in Kingston Springs, TN | Photo by Dozier Donald

This blog was written in partnership with Harpeth Conservancy to highlight all of the work they have accomplished over the past five years, since the Harpeth River’s designation as number 9 on America’s Most Endangered Rivers list of 2015. 

To many people, the Harpeth River is yet another river they have never heard of, but to me the Harpeth River is home. Growing up in Kingston Springs, TN I have spent the last 19 years of my life floating, fishing, swimming, and loving the Harpeth. Some of my fondest memories have occurred on its banks. And I’m not alone.

Harpeth River | Photo by Cate Burgan
My dad playing with our family dog along the Harpeth | Photo by Cate Burgan

For years, thousands of people in the greater Nashville area have spent countless hours recreating on the Harpeth, but most of them have never even realized the free-flowing river was one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers in 2015. 

Tennessee’s Scenic River was ranked number nine on the MER list due to pressure from infrastructure expansion from one of the fastest growing metro areas in the country. 

The Harpeth’s 2015 MER listing was in partnership with the Harpeth River Watershed Association — now known as Harpeth Conservancy. Dorie Bolze, the President and CEO of Harpeth Conservancy, became involved with the organization shortly after it was founded to help monitor and improve conditions in the Harpeth.  Bolze brings 35 years of work experience in the field of water quality science and policy, conservation policy and biology related to wildlife conservation. “A variety of issues can negatively impact water quality including sewer and drinking water treatment plants, agriculture, development, and infrastructure expansion.  These all need to strike a balance while also ensuring a clean and healthy river for citizens to enjoy,” Bolze said.

When the organization started 20 years ago, the Harpeth River did not have a nutrient TMDL (“Total Maximum Daily Load”) set in place — a pollution plan that sets a maximum amount of pollutant a body of water can receive while still meeting state water quality standards. “A lot of people were noticing poor water quality, bad smell, the river being so sluggish, especially in the Williamson County area,” Bolze said in relation to how excessive withdrawals of water and high  nutrient pollution can lead to algae growth and poor water quality, particularly during the hot dry summer months. At the time of the MER listing, the Harpeth River’s water quality was impaired by excessive nutrients — such as phosphorus — that feed toxic algae growth which can cause dangerous conditions for wildlife and public health. 

According to Harpeth Conservancy’s Watershed Science and Restoration Program Director, Ryan Jackwood, Ph.D., “The Harpeth has a number of uses including  fishing, drinking, and recreation.” The lack of cleanliness was “affecting everybody that lives or visits that area,” Dr. Jackwood said. “[The water treatment plants] were sucking too much water during the dry summer months causing the river to have very little or almost no flow at all. I’m sure you can imagine how difficult it would be for aquatic life to survive when the river has very little water.”

Harpeth River | Photo by Paula Tejo
Recreation on the Harpeth in Nashville, TN | Photo by Paula Tejo

The Harpeth is home to rich freshwater biodiversity, including more than 80 species of fish and 30 species of mussels, while flowing 125 miles to meet the Cumberland River: the drinking water source for tens of thousands of people in three different counties in middle Tennessee. 

“[The river’s cleanliness impact] is direct and indirect. The trick is that some of it is not obvious,” said Bolze. “The real challenge is trying to help people understand what to look for, so they know when something is a risky situation or an overall healthy situation.”

The good news is that American River’s listing of the Harpeth on the Most Endangered Rivers list of 2015 did just that. 

Bolze recalls the exact moment in 2015 when the Harpeth River was announced as one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers. Harpeth Conservancy was meeting with the City of Franklin that morning to negotiate a final permit over the excessive water withdrawal from the river: 

The story of the [MER] announcement hit the cover of The Tennessean, Nashville’s newspaper, the morning of a big meeting to finalize the permit that manages the city’s drinking water plant withdrawals from the Harpeth.  That listing and the national press attention was enormous and highlighted the importance of the river and its value to the region. At the meeting, everyone agreed the Harpeth needed a new pollution reduction plan.  That went a long way to support our work, especially efforts to improve operations of the 3 sewer plants along the Harpeth and to reduce nutrient pollution, particularly from the City of Franklin’s sewer treatment plant.

The Harpeth MER listing came while Harpeth Conservancy was in the midst of a citizen suit under the federal Clean Water Act with the City of Franklin, related to excess nutrient pollution being discharged in the Harpeth River from their sewer treatment. Harpeth Conservancy raised a number of issues in that action, including repeated sewer overflows and Franklin’s failure to submit a nutrient optimization report as required by the discharge permit for the plant. Harpeth Conservancy successfully settled that case, resulting in a number of improvements in the operations of the Franklin sewer plant and brought about the expansion of the sewer plant that is currently underway which will reduce nutrient discharge dramatically. This legal action forced the City of Franklin to meet important nutrient pollution reductions, which, according to Bolze, would not have been possible without the MER designation.

Since the City of Franklin started operating using their new nutrient reduction strategies, the current sewer treatment plant has reduced the amount of phosphorus entering the Harpeth River. The new discharge permit and MER designation were instrumental in this reduction, which has decreased levels by 30%. 

Shows the decrease in phosphorus from September 2017-September 2019 | Chart by Harpeth Conservancy
Shows the decrease in phosphorus from September 2017-September 2019 | Chart by Harpeth Conservancy

One of the non-physical, but arguably most important, impacts of Harpeth’s MER designation was getting more local citizens and Tennesseans to genuinely care about environmental improvement. Before the listing, a lot of people found themselves wondering “Why should I dedicate time or money on this?” 

“The MER listing really helped us answer that question by having a nationally recognized organization that’s saying it’s an endangered river, and why it’s so great, and why we should really work to protect it,” said Dr. Jackwood. 

The key word here is “we.” 

The designation of Tennessee’s Scenic Harpeth River as a Most Endangered River in 2015 really brought together all of the surrounding communities. They began to recognize that the river connects them all, and every one had a role to play in protecting the river’s health. It was a collaborative effort. 

Harpeth Conservancy is currently working with the EPA and other local organizations on a pollution reduction plan that can be modeled for all rivers across the state. “Our efforts in the Harpeth  are meant to show a typical river, and the way you solve its problems are very typical: you pull your communities together,” said Bolze. 

“We don’t have the answers yet, but having that [MER] designation made all of that possible. We’re not done yet. The river is not officially restored,” Bolze said. According to their website, Harpeth Conservancy is confident that the Harpeth could be the first river basin in the state to recover and get a clean bill of health.

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