The lower half-mile of Third Creek, between Fulton Bottoms Field and Neyland Drive, can surprise bicyclists and pedestrians on the greenway with its lush, almost-wild beauty. In late summer, the haven for turtles and waterbirds can look almost Amazonian. For urban fisherman, it's the most popular spot to cast a line in the downtown area.
Lately, a major construction project is disrupting the idyll, at least for the time being, with huge mounds of earth forming a dam near the mouth of the creek. Since last spring, the Third Creek Greenway—connecting Bearden to the University of Tennessee and Volunteer Landing via Tyson Park, it's Knoxville's longest and most used bike trail—has been rerouted by a marked detour through UT's agricultural campus.
The Knoxville Utilities Board is expanding its main sewage-treatment plant, adding a 6.5 million-gallon concrete tank to the western end of its complex, and adding almost half a mile of new drainage pipe along the creek itself. It's part of the utility's PACE 10 program, a $530 million, 10-year series of projects launched in 2004, intended to minimize overflows. Jason Brooks, KUB's manager of wastewater collection systems, says the project will improve processing of sewage from West Knoxville, especially in terms of wet-weather overflow. He says this part of the PACE 10 project accounts for $21 million, or less than 5 percent of the total, but "it's a big project in terms of its effects."
All the visible new construction will be on the creek's east side. The huge dam-like structure, a "screen" necessary to replace underground pipe, is temporary. The banks of the broad creek will be restored. "It will be returned to the natural contour, and dressed back up," Brooks says. KUB has conducted government-required studies of effects on wildlife, such as those required for the Aquatic Resources Alteration Permit, and he's confident the work will have no permanent negative effect on the birds, fish, reptiles, and other wildlife of that biologically lively creek.
"This project will reduce the effects of wet-weather infiltration and inflow," Brooks says. "It allows us to shave that peak flow off." As it has been, rains of 3 inches or more have been known to overwhelm the systems. The improved efficiency might not be noticeable to most customers, he says, but some sewage overflows of the past will be less likely in the future.
Also involved in the project is the replacement of 2,100 feet of drainage pipes along Third Creek, most of it deteriorating concrete pipes dating to the 1950s, with a combination of plastic and fiberglass pipe.
Brooks isn't sure what the final footprint of the project will look like, but he says the small Neyland Drive parking lot offering access to the bike trail will likely be a casualty of the project.
Motorists driving by will soon notice work that's more obvious: the construction of a wastewater pumping station, and a little above it to the east, concrete pouring for the massive 6.5 million-gallon tank, much larger than the ones near it.
The project should be completed at the end of June, 2011. Brooks thinks it likely that Third Creek will be a little cleaner, as a result of fewer overflows, but acknowledges that the signs posted along the creek in Tyson Park, warning humans away from the dirty water, reflects more complicated problems involving sewage but also chemical waste and garbage. The signs are staying put, for now.