citybeat (2006-41)

Lord willing and the creek don’t rise

Wednesday, Oct. 4

Risk of Contamination

The recent spinach scare may be related to stormwater. The most likely source for E. coli   on greens appears to be cattle farms. Rain falls on pastures and runs off into creeks, carrying bacteria from cow droppings with it. Downstream, the water is used to irrigate crops.

The process can harm cattle as well. Knox County farmer James McMillan believes his cows have been sickened by grazing in fields after floods. Upstream development has increased both the volume and pollution levels of floodwaters, and residues left behind when water retreats get ingested by the cows. He and the Tennessee Clean Water Network have filed a formal intent to sue upstream developer Victor Jernigan, following years of failed efforts to get county or state regulators to take action.

McMillan has been instrumental in forcing the county to address flooding and water quality issues, and his tireless efforts may finally be bearing fruit. Knox County has drafted a new stormwater ordinance that should come up for approval early next year. In addition, January is the deadline for the county to explain to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) how it will comply with new pollution limits for Fort Loudoun Lake. On Oct. 2, the Stormwater Advisory Board held its first meeting. Its job is to identify funding mechanisms and priorities for county stormwater management.

McMillan remains skeptical. He has watched the county impose delays and miss deadlines, starting with the 2001 Urban Growth Boundary agreement between the city and county, which obligated the county to adopt stormwater regulations at least as stringent as the city’s within 60 days of signing the agreement. That still has not happened.

McMillan also says the county does not enforce regulations currently on the books. He says if the Knox County Soil and Erosion Handbook drafted in 1981 were followed, “my farm would not be destroyed.” Flood control regulations drafted in 1994 to satisfy FEMA guidelines require the county to certify no loss of storage capacity due to development within the 500-year floodplain, meaning any area covered by impermeable surfaces must be offset by increased capacity nearby. “When I ask [developers or inspectors] for their no-rise certification, they just start talking about something else,” McMillan says.

With regard to flooding, “it’s all about volume,” he explains. “[The streams on my farm] were designed by God to carry a two-year flood event within their banks.” Upstream development has reduced storage capacity, and flooding on his land is now more frequent and more severe.

When McMillan took his complaints to the county, Mayor Mike Ragsdale asked close friend Steve Maynard to look into the situation. In a frank, six-page report, Maynard listed 13 “concerns or deficiencies” with developments upstream of McMillan’s farm, made 10 recommendations for better enforcement, and concluded that “laws of County of Knox, State of Tennessee and Federal Government are not being fully enforced.”

Maynard submitted his informal report to Ragsdale on Feb. 23, 2005. In April, the county moved to adopt the city ordinance as a temporary stopgap measure while it developed its own rules. The adopted language, however, contained numerous amendments that weakened the ordinance. Community activist Jamie Rowe, a member of the Stormwater Advisory Board, says the word “shall” was repeatedly replaced by “may,” and specifications like “double-walled pipe” were downgraded to “pipe,” a cost-saving move for developers. Eighteen months later, the temporary ordinance is still in effect.

In October 2003, TDEC placed Knox County under a Small MS4 General NPDES permit, a complex document intended to bring county waters into compliance with federal Clean Water Act standards. The permit outlines a five-year plan for updating laws and establishing pollution-control programs. A TDEC compliance inspection completed in May found the county behind schedule in training its staff, mapping stormwater outfalls, implementing an illicit discharge detection program and, of course, updating its laws.

Chris Granju is Knox County Stormwater Management Coordinator. Granju says the new ordinance will address all these concerns. The inspection, he says, “was really helpful. I would like to have done it two or three years earlier. It was the very first feedback or formal correspondence my department has gotten from TDEC.”  The report clarified timetables and will help his department complete the Fort Loudoun Lake Sediment and Habitat Alteration Plan due in January.

Granju says the new ordinance is “the culmination of probably three or four years of hard, roll-up-your-sleeves work” and will include 22 recommendations from the Site Planning Roundtable, a gathering of diverse interest groups established in 2002 to review how county design guidelines impact water quality. “The whole idea of the ordinance is encouraging better site design and low impact development,” he says.

The ordinance will emphasize use of permeable surfaces, smaller footprints, retention of vegetation and other “smart building and green engineering” strategies that can alleviate flooding and improve water quality. Granju hopes the ordinance will “show developers it will actually cost less to use low-impact techniques.”

He has at least one important ally, Richard Cate, director of the Home Builders Association of Greater Knoxville. On WBIR’s Inside Tennessee , Cate said, “We need to get to the point where everyone is doing low-impact development.”

Cate’s organization, he says, “sponsored one workshop and has another scheduled for Oct. 3” to promote low-impact techniques. Cate says that “increased awareness about water quality and the environment in general” is steering his industry toward better practices.

Whether other builders and developers adopt low-impact practices remains to be seen. TDEC’s inspection noted that in 4,143 inspections since 2005, county inspectors issued 32 notices of violation, 36 stop-work orders, five citations, and held up four final inspections for corrections. “No fines or penalties were assessed,” according to the report. Under the 2003 NPDES permit, maximum fines increased from $1,000 per day to $5,000 per day.

At its September meeting, County Commission approved a code revision that allows inspectors to issue fines by mail rather than having to present them in person, a change that could make the higher maximum more than an abstract issue. Asked about the rarity of fines, Granju mentions the burden of personal citations and says, “A lot of the time a stop-work order is more effective than a fine.”

Granju’s budget has increased, and he was able to hire two new employees in 2005, a plans reviewer and an inspector. This year he hired another plans reviewer and two inspectors. Still, the department’s workload is increasing under the new NPDES permit and pollution guidelines. TDEC asked them to speed up the outfall mapping process, which is only 10 percent complete. They set goals of 60 percent completion in a year and full coverage by 2008, and Granju says this will be done through “a combination of contracting and partnerships.”

Much of the water quality monitoring done in Knox County is handled in the same way. The Beaver Creek Watershed Association is an innovative organization that has received accolades from state and federal agencies. It has brought citizens together with businesses, utilities, advocacy groups and government agencies, and it provides what amounts to a volunteer workforce to do monitoring, mapping and watchdog activities.

Knox County Stormwater Management is an active player and has helped start similar associations for Stock Creek and Bullrun Creek. Other watershed initiatives in Roseberry Creek, Flat Creek, Sinking Creek and more have brought grant money and outside parties into the equation. Granju says his department was “instrumental in forming the Lower Clinch Watershed Council,” which will help implement new pollution guidelines in that water system.

He says mapping and monitoring work “could be done by folks from TVA, UT or TDEC” thanks to cooperative partnerships. Analysis of fecal coliform samples can determine whether the primary source was human or animal. This is important information if you are aiming to reduce pollution, though if it winds up in your salad or in the stream where your kids play, you may not care.


Wednesday, Oct. 4

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Tuesday, Oct. 10