Over the last decade, whenever someone wants to draw attention to the water quality of the Cumberland River, they jump in and go for a swim.
Vic Scoggin took a dip in the Cumberland in 1997. Scoggin swam the main stem of the river — all 697 miles — in a full wetsuit and covered in petroleum jelly to stave off infection.
It was probably a good idea Scoggin took such precautions. What he found was truly jarring — floating cattle carcasses, entire cars and oil-like coalmine runoff.
Fast-forward 11-plus years to next Thursday and once again someone is planning on taking a swim in the Cumberland River. This time, a group of Metro Council members, Metro officials and others will be swimming the Cumberland to shine a spotlight on the river’s water quality.
The group’s plans are less ambitious as they will only be swimming the width of the river downtown, which amounts to about 500 feet. The cause is different, too. This time the group is trying to show the shocking pollutants Scoggin found in 1997 are long gone.
“For 100 years, we have turned our back on the river that has given its life blood to the city of Nashville,” District 23 Councilwoman Emily Evans said in an e-mail to Council members and media. “We polluted it, industrialized it, and turned it into a septic system. But in just the past few years, an amazing transformation has begun. Today, the river is cleaner than it has ever been.”
Still work to be done
There is hard evidence that the river has come along way thanks in large part to the work of an advocacy group called the Cumberland River Compact. In 2002, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) took 33 miles of the Cumberland off its list of streams that do not meet water quality standards.
Evans also points out the wildlife slowly returning to its former home.
“Even the finicky blue heron and American bald eagle [have] returned to build nests along its banks,” Evans said.
Vena Jones, who serves as the director of local officials’ curriculum for the Cumberland River Compact, said the group’s awareness efforts have been warmly received throughout the region.
“We’ve come a long way,” Jones said. “The level of awareness about water quality issues and how individuals contribute and how our behavior contributes to pollution has increased greatly.”
But for as far as the river has come, there is progress to be made and there are serious obstacles standing in the way of improving water quality throughout Davidson County.
When TDEC released its latest report on all the bodies of water that do not meet environmental quality standards in Tennessee, roughly 60 waterways in Davidson County were included. Virtually all of the streams listed received a Category 5 classification — the worst rating for polluted bodies of water.
Among them was a stretch of the Cumberland a mere stone’s throw from where the Council members and officials will be conducting their swim. The stretch, listed in the state’s 303(d) report as the Cheatham Reservoir, covers nearly 1,000 acres of riverfront from Woodland Street to the Bordeaux Bridge.
Sewer overflow is listed as the cause for the contamination to this stretch of the Cumberland, according to Paul Davis, the director of TDEC’s water pollution control division. It speaks to a concern Evans and others have been harping on for sometime now — that Nashville’s sewer, water and stormwater infrastructures are vastly outdated and need to be improved.
Metro’s water infrastructure has components that predate the President Abraham Lincoln administration, while sewer infrastructure dates back to the early 1900s.
Earlier this year, Metro found out it needed an estimated $84 million in projects to expand and improve its stormwater infrastructure as well.
“In this area, the remaining contaminated [bodies of water] are a result of a combination of urban runoff and the remaining sewer issues,” said Paul Davis, the director of TDEC’s water pollution control division.
Resolution will help
To ensure the Cumberland River swim is more than just a publicity stunt, Evans, and the other Council members involved, have attached a resolution aimed at continuing to improve water quality in Davidson County.
The resolution limits industrial development within 100 feet of the river, restores more natural habitats by adding riverside buffer zones and prioritizes redevelopment of current industrial and blighted sites along the river.
Davis, who has been at TDEC for 35 years, calls the resolution “progressive, truly forward thinking.”
“The commitment behind it represents a real positive statement that frankly wasn’t here 35 years ago,” Davis said. “I’m happy to see it and optimistic if Council gets behind it, they’ll do what they say they’ll do.”
Doug Hausken, the executive director of the Cumberland River Compact, said the group’s top aim right now is to encourage individuals to take personal responsibility for river pollution. Hausken said it’s his hope the Cumberland River swim will draw attention to the simple efforts individuals can do to make a difference.
“We’re talking about basic stuff like leaving a buffer zone between the stream by your house and how close you mow so that pollutants don’t wash into the water,” Hausken said. “A lot more attention is being drawn to it. There’s this group of folks who have been doing the long hard work of building an organization and adding staff members… we see this event as educating people about the river and taking the next step towards making a difference.”