Williams Creek Revealed

An East Knox park slowly emerges from a tangle of underbrush and trash

Goats and dump trucks have done their work in the wooded lots off Daily Street in East Knoxville. The dense thicket of invasive privet has been pared back. The abandoned sofas, appliances and more than 700 tires have been carted away.

For the first time in decades, the reason for all this effort is finally visible: Williams Creek, more or less clear and sparkling in the sun.

"You couldn't even see the creek," says Renee Hoyos, executive director of the Clean Water Network, which has partnered with the City of Knoxville on the project. "And I saw a blue heron out there this morning."

The creek, which feeds the Tennessee River, has long been polluted. But in 2011, The Clean Water Network began buying undeveloped parcels in this transient neighborhood and turning them over to the city, which aims to turn this longtime dumping haven into a managed urban forest.

The effort was boosted last month with the purchase of five wooded acres across Daily Street from the creek, doubling the size of the protected area.

Hoyos says there is an unusual upside to the chore of removing the property's infestation of kudzu, Japanese honeysuckle, privet, and euonymus bush. When they are gone, the city can choose the trees in which to clothe a living forest.

The Clean Water Network has applied for a grant to harvest seedlings from the big hardwoods on the property so the local genetic line can be preserved and replanted when the weedy invaders are under control. These seedlings could be stored at the nearby Knoxville Botanical Gardens until then, Hoyos says.

She is consulting the city's urban forester, Kasey Krause, about native species that might have grown by the creek at the time of the Civil War, when many Knoxville forests were razed. These natives could fill in spaces in the woods, allowing the urban forest to provide both botanical and historical insights as an outdoor classroom.

"That would be a first for my work here in Knoxville," Krause says. "I have not heard of anybody trying to do that."

Now that the city owns the vacant land for a couple of blocks on both sides of Daily Street, it plans to try closing that section of the road for a year's trial.

Now, the road turns into Graves Street after cresting a hill. After the closure, both streets will dead-end into a combined park, Hoyos says. At a public meeting in March, everyone but the U.S. Postal Service supported the closure, she says, and she expects it to be permanent.

"That would end the dumping there," says Hoyos.

These days, the trash among the tree roots is mostly food containers and bottles, although random larger objects are found closer to the road. Beneath a caved-in storm water pipe lays a jumble of trash bags, a ball, a tire and what appears to be an old typewriter.

"The trash there is a drop in the bucket compared to what used to be out there," says Hoyos, who is seeking funds to fill in the giant divot left when the city removed the big pile of tires for recycling.

Already the dumping of entire households has stopped – partly thanks to a herd of goats. Goats were brought in to start eating the thick underbrush last summer and are due back again in July, Hoyos says. They brought new community enthusiasm to the park effort, and focused neighbor's eyes on the property.

The goats' powerful jaws helped make the Graves Street end of the creek-side land into an open forest of scraggly tall grass, where the sun streams between hardwoods contorted into strange shapes by years of competition for light. Bell-shaped clusters of white flowers and dewy purple violets dot the steeper parts of the stream bank, while around a stream bend casual trash and a (literal) mossy carpet litter the pebbled shoals.

Many tree branches are still laden with two-inch-thick, leathery Virginia creeper vines. Although they have been cut, they dangle precariously like booby traps. No clear paths have yet been made over the uneven forest floor to indicate regular use. The new property across the street is even more impenetrable with kudzu and tightly-packed small trees and bushes.

The three new parcels were purchased for $90,000 from Chattanooga-based Springview Recovery Center, which had at one time planned to build an addiction recovery center there, Hoyos says.

The Alcoa and Aslan foundations footed most of the bill, and the city helped with closing costs, she says.

Neighbors are interested in the project, but some remain a bit skeptical.

Lillie McPherson, whose big yard is covered in violets, has lived across Daily Street from part of the park area for 13 years. She says the dumping has slowed since the cleanup effort began, but she voiced concern that a public park might end up being a hangout for rough troublemakers.

Down the street, Robert Norris likes the park idea but says, "It would take three years and a hundred people working on it."

That's about what Hoyos figures. She says trail-building won't begin until the goats have chomped away at the invasive undergrowth for three years. And city workers have spent days cleaning up garbage and chopping down the brush that was too tall for the goats to eat.

She hopes to hold some cleanups this year using community volunteers, now that enough garbage has been removed to make that a safer prospect. (The tire dump, for example, was first found when Hoyos fell into it.)

Joe Walsh, Knoxville director of parks and recreation, says in the long run he envisions soft-surface trails winding through the trees by Williams Creek.

"I see it as an opportunity for families to take a walk in the park," he says. "And with its close proximity to the botanical garden, we'd like to make a connection to that."

Park space in East Knoxville is sparse compared to other parts of the city, making the new urban forest all the more significant, Hoyos says. In the long run, she says she'd like the park to be linked with the greenways that end at Riverside Drive.

"But that's not for a long time—and we're talking a long, long time," she says.

Some environmental payoffs are coming a bit sooner.

Shannon Ashford, communications officer for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, says the new park has helped the stream move toward recovery.

A dozen years ago, TDEC determined Williams Creek had an unhealthy load of e coli, disease-causing organisms in the water that can make people sick. The department and The Clean Water Network, which had filed a lawsuit against the city and the Knoxville Utilities board, blamed the storm water system for most of this problem.

As reported in an April 21, 2010 Metro Pulse story, KUB and the city signed a consent agreement in 2004 requiring the utility to spend $167,000 for an environmental improvement project, and the money was used to buy the first properties along Daily Street.

"As far as the e coli levels improving over the past decade, the numbers may be slightly tilted toward the better, but there is no discernible trend," Ashford writes in an e-mail.

However, "Data indicates that the stream has shown improvement in the biological community over the past 11 years," Ashford says.

The most recent assessment of creek wildlife and habitat, conducted by the city last June, found a healthy level of creatures such as insects, clams and snails downstream, but not upstream. Both portions offered healthy habitat, Ashford says.