gamut (2007-16)

World's Fair Park is not the best place to celebrate the Earth. Somewhere under the lawns where exhibitors pitch their tents and frisbees glide, Second Creek slips through a dark concrete tunnel. The waters tumbling handsomely beside the convention center are a fountain mocking the true creek, which sneaks out from under Cumberland Avenue below 11th Street into a natural channel lined with native trees.

There is pawpaw where Second Creek rubs up against the hill on which the university began, and migrating warblers use the creek's forest as passage to Sharp's Ridge during their spring journey. Though the fairground condemns several hundred feet of creek to darkness, a landscape worth celebrating remains just downstream, a native forest, diminished but not dead, cradling the creek before it slips under Neyland Drive into the river.

In his poem "Paradise," R.B. Morris renamed the creek Home Creek. It is home to local mockingbirds, and wrens, cardinals and titmice too. By any other name, it stills smells vaguely of the major interstate exchanges it runs under before getting to campus. The creek starts out pleasantly enough in Inskip, but soon hits the I-640/I-275 interchange and follows I-275 through Sharp's Gap, through the Coster railyard then under the I-40 interchange.

Jonathan Burr, a Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) biologist, says though Second Creek is one of many county creeks on the state's impaired waters list, you can still find "buckets full of life" in the forested segment of the creek, including a fish, crayfish and aquatic insects. Burr calls Second Creek "the oldest urbanized stream in Knox County."

Morris digs deeper into history, speculating that life began in the creek when "Time stood still long enough to swallow its tail and rear its head inside a dream." Geology agrees. Not only are the Appalachians ancient, they bordered a swampy inland sea during the era when terrestrial life first flourished. Perhaps along the banks of Home Creek, mayflies begat damselflies.

As old as our mountains are, as much life grows and rots and runs off with the rains, waters run clear in the Appalachians. Rich soils buffer the streams, and hungry insects and salamanders live underwater gobbling debris. If Knox County can learn to treat its creeks well, the same factors can keep our creeks clean: forested streambanks, natural channels and diverse flora and fauna.

R.B. Morris does not think much ("Their poetry is bad!") of those who numbered the creeks and streets of Knoxville rather than naming them, "unknowing children grown old with indifference." Worse has been said of County Commission. Knox County must write a little stormwater poetry in the next 15 months to satisfy federal clean water law.

Actually, the poetry is written. The draft ordinance is available for inspection, and Knox County is collecting public comments. Four more public meetings are promised, though none has been scheduled. The deadline for submitting comments has not been announced.

The county's Stormwater Advisory Board is about to issue its recommendations, and a city consultant announced last week that only a few changes to the draft ordinance are needed to satisfy the 2001 Urban Growth Boundary Agreement (UGBA).

The county said it would adopt stormwater protections "as strict as" Knoxville's within 60 days of that agreement taking effect. It was not until 2005 that the county updated its ordinance, though it did begin the public process of drafting a new ordinance in 2002. Whether the new ordinance is as strict as the city's is a matter of dispute, but the county believes its stormwater manual is as good as or better than the city's.

The county is under another obligation, compliance with Phase II of the Clean Water Act. Knox County has been under a Phase II permit since 2003 and must adopt a compliant ordinance within five years. The 2005 ordinance does not comply, thus the need to revise the ordinance yet again.

The draft ordinance is the culmination of a public process begun in 2002, the Site Planning Roundtable, a series of public discussions that resulted in 22 recommendations for better land use planning in Knox County. All these recommendations "were folded into the ordinance," according to the county engineering department. The engineering manual accompanying the ordinance was also written to reflect these recommendations, which include low-impact design methods and "green engineering." The 2005 ordinance was based on the roundtable recommendations, and the new draft adds a few more protections.

To comply with federal guidelines, the county added Special Pollution Abatement Permits to the draft ordinance. Developers who would have to get a federal water pollution permit from TDEC under current regulations would get the permit from the county under the draft ordinance, making life a little easier for developers and the state government.

The draft ordinance also expands water quality buffers, requiring forested and grassy buffers on either side of all community waters, wetlands, lakes and ponds. Development is restricted within 50 feet of a stream, and the inner 25 feet must be vegetated, like the last stretch of Second Creek. Forest buffers capture sediment and calm floodwaters.

Also new in the proposed stormwater ordinance is as-built certification, a professionally certified, post-construction affirmation that the built structure conforms to plan. This requirement should improve compliance without demanding more of an already strained enforcement staff, which the county admits is inadequate. Several positions have been added in recent years, and more are anticipated. To compensate for being understaffed, county engineering emphasizes a proactive approach. "Inspections on a proactive basis demand less enforcement," the county's Sr. Director of Engineering and Public Works, Bruce Wuethrich, explains.

Tennessee Clean Water Network (TCWN) staff members are skeptical that the draft ordinance is adequate to meet state and federal guidelines, with concerns about enforcement fueling their doubt. They routinely field calls from county residents experiencing increased flooding and sediment after an upstream development has gone in.

Brian and Angie Fields purchased a home in Halls last year. In August, construction began on a subdivision near their home, and they have had muddy runoff flowing through their yard during rains ever since. Though several county commissioners and other officials have visited them, they say nothing has been done. "There are still no silt fences or hay bales, and now they've started work on another subdivision," says Angie Fields.

According to TCWN, such tales are common in Knox County and throughout Tennessee.

Few fines are assessed and few assessments collected. Asked about the new ordinance, TCWN Director Renee Hoyos says, "They can't enforce the existing ordinance, why should I expect they'll enforce this one?"

Last year TCWN attempted to take the enforcement issue into their own hands. They joined local farmer James McMillan in a lawsuit against Victor Jernigan, a developer McMillan blames for increased flooding and sedimentation on his farm. McMillan says his cows have gotten sick from grazing in a pasture contaminated by floodwater, and he fears the land his family has farmed for several generations will no longer support livestock if upstream development continues to encroach on the floodplain and pollute the creek.

When McMillan and TCWN sent Jernigan a 60-day notice of intent to sue, Jernigan sold the property to another company he owns, eluding the lawsuit. Lawyers are considering whether to keep playing the legal shell game or pursue others strategies. Ironically, Jernigan is a member of the county Stormwater Advisory Board. Hoyos says, "There is a lot of mistrust in the community about development."

She says the ordinance demands only the minimum of developers, and while low-impact techniques are included, they are optional. "Considering the state of streams in this county, those should be mandatory," says Hoyos, pointing out that around 360 miles of county waters are on the state's impaired waters list.

Knoxville code requires erosion controls be inspected before the site is disturbed, one of several enforcement measures written into city code. Tetra Tech, Inc., a national water management consultancy, said the county should aspire to city enforcement standards. County Watershed Coordinator Roy Arthur expects county engineering to begin requiring site inspections before soil is disturbed, a change consistent with the county's proactive approach.

Tetra Tech was asked by the city whether the county's draft ordinance meets the UGBA "as strict as" standard. Comparing the ordinances is no simple matter. The documents overlap in some ways, but diverge in their general approach. Tetra Tech cited two changes that had to be made to satisfy the UGBA and made nearly a dozen suggestions for both the city and county to consider. Kimberly Brewer shared six of the suggestions at the public presentation Tetra Tech made last Thursday, April 12.

The primary recommendation was better enforcement. Tetra Tech said more staff is needed and county engineering needs better data and models and better tracking of violations so chronic offenders can be identified. Tetra Tech said both the city and county suffer from "a reliance on older studies," a charge echoed by Hoyos, who says county engineers rely on models developed for regions with different terrain and hydrology.

Brewer noted that water quality enforcement has always depended on citizen reports and warned those at the meeting to remain vigilant after the new ordinance is adopted. "Make sure you're seeing fines and enforcement measures," Brewer says.

Tetra Tech's other requirement was the focal point of discussion at Thursday's meeting. The county must require reinforced concrete piping (RCP) in public rights-of-way, detention pond outlets and pass-through drainage, just as the city does. Several representatives of companies that sell metal, plastic and composite piping objected, noting that there is only one supplier, Sherman Dixie Concrete Industries in Chattanooga, serving Knox County. Commissioner Lumpy Lambert objected to "dictating a certain material," noting advances in automotive materials during his years as a car dealer. He plans to introduce an amendment that will replace the RCP specification with "strength and durability standards" so the ordinance remains flexible and does not provide a de facto monopoly to Sherman Dixie.

John Simpson of Sherman Dixie said the company's nearest competitor is in London, Ky., and a major corporation plans to build a precast concrete plant between Knoxville and Nashville to serve both markets.

Reinforced concrete piping is easier to install and has a lower risk of failure than other piping materials, but it is more expensive. The added reliability reduces future maintenance costs, but those costs are typically not the developer's responsibility. Maintenance of pipes in public rights-of-way is a public expense once construction is completed, and for subdivision detention ponds, that responsibility is usually deeded to a homeowners association or an individual property owner.

Another point of contention at Thursday's meeting was the exemption for erosion and sediment control. The city exempts disturbances under 10,000 square feet from grading and erosion permits so as not to burden residential landowners. The county threshold is one acre, which is approximately 45,000 square feet. Tetra Tech suggested both governments lower their exemption threshold to 5,000 square feet, but, highlighting the difficulty of comparing the ordinances, they seem to have overlooked the county's requirement for a small lot erosion control plan, which is required for all disturbances under an acre in size. The small lot plans do not require professional certification or a performance bond, so they save small builders those expenses without exempting them from erosion control.

The county requires a certified and bonded stormwater management plan for any disturbance that impacts a drainage channel, regardless of size, language missing entirely from the city ordinance. Rather than setting a threshold, the county ordinance explicitly exempts gardening, landscaping and other routine soil disturbances from regulation.

Cortney Piper of TCWN says "sediment is the No. 1 pollutant in area waters." Not only does sediment turn water cloudy and brown, it "decreases habitat and transports chemicals," she says. As sediment accumulates, it reduces oxygen and makes rocks slimy.

Some fish tolerate high sediment loads. Snubnose darter can be found even in heavily impacted urban creeks, according to TDEC's Jonathan Burr. Clean creeks and rivers support many other species of fish, insects, plants and more. Surveys in healthy waters can turn up dozens of species of mayflies, minnows and salamanders, whereas surveys in urban creeks turn up just the tolerant few in each category.

Because sediment is a ubiquitous pollutant with broad impacts, efforts to reduce sediment have the highest potential to yield water quality improvements. The new stormwater ordinance only impacts future development, so the ordinance alone will only "slow the rate of impairment," as county Stormwater Director Chris Granju says. Other efforts will be needed to achieve water quality improvements and remove streams from the impaired waters list. "The ordinance [is] a key tool in abating future impairments in order to create a platform for watershed restoration projects in Knox County," according to Wuethrich of the county's engineering department.

The Beaver Creek Watershed Association (BCWA) has received state and national recognition as a model for how diverse community interests can work together on water quality. The association includes professional and academic experts, citizens, businesses and government and works on education and outreach, water quality monitoring and restoration and mitigation projects. The group has been rewarded substantial grants and has done state-of-the-art research.

Beaver Creek is the largest watershed in Knox County, extending from Halls to Solway. A watershed is the land area that drains into a particular waterway, so the Beaver Creek watershed includes Beaver Creek itself, all its tributaries and all the land that sheds rainwater into those creeks and streams.

Roy Arthur was instrumental in making BCWA a success, and he was hired part-time in 2003 by the county to act as watershed coordinator. He has helped form similar groups in the Stock Creek watershed, which encompasses most of the county south of the Tennessee River, and in the Bullrun Creek watershed. These associations will be critical in improving water quality in the county because they perform monitoring and outreach functions county engineering wishes it had the budget and staff to accomplish. In addition, watershed associations bring grant money to the equation.

Arthur's latest innovation is a pollution credit trading program for the Beaver Creek watershed, which is being developed with grant money from the Environmental Protection Agency. The program will be similar to trading schemes in place for certain air pollutants, but it will cover sediment and nutrients. Once the program is implemented, developers will be able to purchase sediment credits to offset runoff from construction sites, and wastewater treatment plants will be able to purchase nutrient credits to offset their phosphorus and nitrogen effluent. Landowners and entities that do streambank repairs, habitat restoration or other beneficial projects will earn credits polluters can purchase.

Arthur says the end result will be "more restoration done more quickly." BCWA will spend two years creating accounting and certification systems to support the credit market. If the pilot program is successful, it will likely be emulated in other areas facing water quality problems.

Such programs will be futile if land use policies are not improved, so Arthur is eager to see the stormwater ordinance pass. "We need to resolve the differences and put the ordinance in place, because it has some good water quality components," he says.

Commissioner Tony Norman says, "Stormwater is a piece of the puzzle, but it all fits together into an overarching watershed plan." Norman is an ecology teacher at West High School whose students have been monitoring Third Creek near the school for a decade. With help from Americorps, the students perform surveys of aquatic life and take water samples to analyze for chemical and bacterial content. They also learn map skills and study land use in the Third Creek watershed, which Norman says is "consistently poor."

Knoxville and the state are working to restore natural meanders to a segment of the creek near the school that was straightened in the past. Straightened channels increase water velocity, which causes streambank erosion and exacerbates downstream flooding.

Commissioner Norman sees water quality as a social issue. "Kids can't play in the creeks in the city like I could growing up," he says. This alters the way they think about nature and outdoor recreation. Norman sees trash in Third Creek as a sign that the community views the creek more as a sewer than a stream. He tries to teach his students "it doesn't have to be that way."

Norman calls himself "a lifelong advocate of water quality" who favors responsible development. "Knoxville is notorious for putting development where it doesn't need to be," he says. "Intense development pressures are causing problems" he hopes to address as a commissioner. Norman says in the few months he has served on county commission, he has "developed a role as a mediator between environmentalists and the engineering department." He hopes his colleagues will recognize his interest and expertise as they deliberate on the stormwater ordinance and other water quality initiatives and priorities.

Burr remains optimistic about the ability of regional waters to recover. Streams and aquatic life "are very resilient," he says. "The river cleans itself up pretty good." Toxins like ammonia quickly break down into less harmful compounds, and bacteria die when exposed to cold water and sunlight, so pollution can be short-lived. Burr sees the reintroduction of native mussels to the lower Holston and French Broad Rivers and the recovery of aquatic mammals as hopeful signs. "Beavers are everywhere, and I have seen more signs of otter over the past 10 years," Burr says.

Chris Granju says, "There is great potential for being able to remove Stock Creek from the impaired waters list." Speaking of the success of the Beaver Creek Watershed Association, he says, "the level of community involvement is inspiring."

Whatever path County Commission takes, bad poetry or inspiration, community involvement will be the key ingredient in bringing clean and healthy waters back to Knox County. Slip down to the mouth of Second Creek on Earth Day or visit a forested stream sometime soon and ask yourself the question R.B. Morris poses: "Don't you realize this is Paradise?"