Is There Hope for First Creek?

For starters, First Creek is still here. It is persistent. No matter our efforts to push it out of sight and mind, it insists upon flowing. We can raze fields, cut down trees, rip out woods for parking lots and developments, but we can't make our creeks go away. This means that we have what seems like a miraculous opportunity to correct "the sins of our fathers," as city stormwater engineering planning chief Brent Johnson suggests.

Many, like Beth Booker and Bobby Braly, are not ready to give up on First Creek just because it is far from being pristine. "Perfection is a stick with which to beat the possible," writes Rebecca Solnit in her book Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities.

Booker echoes Solnit, saying that positive change for waterways can be very slow but that, "Every little bit we do for nature helps." People like University of Tennessee environmental ethics professor John Nolt, who've been watching for a long time, do see our creeks getting better in many ways. "It may be possible again for people to play in the creeks," he says.

Johnson is proud of flood control efforts that have been done along the creek. He says one of the city's little-known accomplishments was to detain water at the Whittle Springs Golf Course, which has lessened flooding in the area.

The massive flood control project completed in 2011 at Emoriland and Fairmont boulevards has successfully created what now function as natural flood plains that border the creek. Those plains are vibrant with carefully selected native vegetation, plants that he says will "just lay down" when the water comes through.

Johnson says that long ago, when houses were being built in that area, there wasn't a general understanding of respecting flood plains, and people built way too close to the creek. "Frankly," he says, "once Mother Nature chooses a path, it's really hard to alter that path." Instead, people have had to move out of the flood plain—in 1976, 95 homes were condemned in that area. But projects like the recent one let people stay while making more room for the creek.

And Johnson is on a mission to make developers abide by the regulations, which require what are known as best management practices. These practices include simple measures that do a lot, like installing silt fences around construction zones and catch basin inserts that filter out pollutants like oil and pesticides. Unfortunately, though, the newer, more stringent rules that have been implemented in recent years didn't require retrofits for existing development. This is why, for instance, the Northgate Plaza Shopping Center on Broadway has a drainage ditch leading directly into the creek behind its stores.

Johnson says that over the past year, the stormwater engineering division issued 450 notices of violations and 42 penalties that totaled $68,450 in fines. "It's meaningful enforcement when you get into their pockets," he says. Though his division has four inspectors and five investigators, he says he always welcomes help from the public. "We have a water quality hotline that we encourage everybody to call if they see something," he says (number listed at end of story).

And there are watchdog groups like the Tennessee Clean Water Network, which sometimes brings polluters to the table with lawsuits. The Network, which uses litigation as a last resort, currently has 10 ongoing legal actions for some of the worst water pollution across the state. Dana Wright, TCWN's water policy director, says that the group encourages home- and business-owners to protect riparian areas adjacent to streams. "By keeping riparian and flood zones vegetated, pollutants that run off in storms can be filtered by plants and grass," she says. The roots of trees like sycamore, as Tanner points out when we walk the creek, stabilize banks and prevent erosion.

So when he and I came across two young boys hacking away vegetation along the bank behind an office building, we were a little astounded. The boys, high school students trying to earn money for the summer, told us the building-owner pays them to cut away the plants. Incidentally, that part of the bank, with short grass up to its edge, is steep and badly eroded.

As for the underground parts of the creek, engineers and city planners these days are starting to rethink the old "out of sight, out of mind" ideology and to instead look at ways that access to water improves quality of life for both aquatic species and for us humans.

"How do we unearth that big pipe under James White Parkway?" Johnson jokes. But in fact the practice of exposing buried creeks (what's known as "daylighting") has become a not-so-uncommon one in urban design. Just this year, Lexington, Ky., invited architecture firms to decide how to uncover its long-buried Town Branch Creek, upon which the city was founded. Several firms produced renderings that showed the creek rewoven into Lexington's downtown fabric. Jurors selected a New York-based firm to carry out the project. "Their proposal is not pie in the sky," said one of the jurors in a Lexington Herald-Leader story. "It is real. It's clearly implementable." The newly unearthed creek will contain a network of pools, fountains, rain gardens, and marshes.

Simply seeing a creek can spark people to take action on issues like sedimentation and bacterial contamination. "One of the greatest things we can do is to let people use and appreciate our streams," Wright says.

That's why the city's plan to build a 10-mile-long bicycle and pedestrian greenway along its length from Fountain City to the Tennessee River is perhaps the greatest hope for the long-term healing of First Creek. Nolt says that greenways bring people to the creek, which makes them curious about the water. If it is posted as contaminated, they might wonder why—and then they might do something about it.