The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

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Black Crappie in the Tennessee AquariumA black crappie is seen in the Tennessee Aquarium. Citizen scientists across the region can now plug their fish findings into a new database. Courtesy Tennessee Aquarium

So you want to be a citizen scientist? There’s a new app for that!

The Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute wants to assess the status of various fish populations throughout the Southeast so it released a new app to help outdoor folks and anglers identify the fish they spot, report the sighting, and enter their discoveries into a regional fish database.

The Freshwater Information Network (FIN) accepts and includes data for three major watersheds: The Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, and Mobile Bay.

Tennesseans may be familiar with the two rivers, but may think of Mobile Bay as a distant place with no connection to them, but its headwaters touch Tennessee in the Conasauga River. With its geographic isolation, the Conasauga is home to species of fish found nowhere else in the world.

Our region has more species of fish than any other part of the country, and the open FIN database and application includes information on nearly half the U.S. species of fish. When hikers, boaters or anglers spot a fish, they can participate by first photographing it and then uploading the photograph to the app.

The app can help citizens themselves identify the fish, and when paired with GPS location data it becomes a part of the FIN database, which also includes museum records and interactive maps. The app also allows a user to enter their address to find their watershed and access a list of the fish that live there.

FIN Watershed Map

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ACE097A1 B57D 45ED B235 4D93EBC89DD8A wharf seen along the Tennessee River in Knoxville in the late 1800s or later. Knoxville History Project via Hard Knox Wire

Q&A with Knoxville historian illustrates the importance of the Tennessee River to nascent Knoxville

Rivers didn't need early American cities, but the cities certainly needed rivers.

Knoxville historian Jack Neely and Hard Knox Wire editor J.J. Stambaugh lay out a fascinating history of the Tennessee River through Knoxville in their latest collaboration. And yes. It has several references to “Suttree” by Cormac McCarthy. Of course.

“Beyond in the dark the river flows in a sluggard ooze toward southern seas…. afreight with the past, dreams dispersed in the water someway, nothing ever lost.” — Cormac McCarthy, Suttree.

The Tennessee River doesn’t loom large in the daily lives of most contemporary Knoxville residents, but two centuries ago it was literally why there was a city here in the first place.

In fact, it’s impossible to discuss Knoxville’s history for long without the river cropping up in one way or another. In the earliest days of the community’s existence, settlers drew water from and washed in the creeks that fed the Tennessee; the river itself carried boats laden with goods hundreds of miles before ending up in New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico.

Since then, the city’s relationship with the river has evolved steadily. It was an economic lifeline for generations, but railroads and automobiles eventually cornered the market when it came to shipping both cargo and passengers. Today, it’s a safe bet that when most people think of the “Riverfront” they’re thinking of restaurants or maybe a fireworks display; for the lucky few who can afford to belong to the yacht club, they’re maybe thinking about Labor Day weekends spent sailing with the Vol Navy.

In the latest edition of Hard Knox Histories, local historian and journalist Jack Neely discusses the ebbs and flows of Knoxville’s connection to the river with HKW’s editor, J.J. Stambaugh.

J.J.: When the first settlers arrived at the site that would be Knoxville, what role did geography — especially the Tennessee River — play in their decision to settle here? How important was the river commercially in the early days? The river, of course, was fed by numerous tributaries and creeks. How important were relatively small waterways like First Creek to the early city’s growth?

JACK: The river was elemental. It was hard to start a city without one. It was transportation, it was water for drinking and cooling, it was waste disposal. And, of course, the Tennessee reached from here into Cherokee territory, beyond into Alabama, then through West Tennessee into Kentucky, and all the way to the Ohio and the Mississippi.

When it came to locating a city, First Creek was probably as important as the Tennessee because it provided mill power. There were several mills up and down First Creek, as well as Second Creek. The two downtown creeks were the eastern and western boundaries of the city for its first 70 years or so.

The river was extremely important commercially, even though it was a mostly one-way thing. In the early days, when Knoxville was a territorial and state capital, there was a demand for liquor here, and folks apparently got so good at producing cheap whisky and brandy that they loaded flatboats with it and floated them downriver, all the way to New Orleans, where it could be sold for several times the cost. I love the fact that riverboat crewmen would bust up their rafts and sell them for hardwood in a city where there wasn’t much of it. A lot of the wooden buildings in the French Quarter, especially in the interiors, show traces of the rope holes and grooves characteristic of flatboats.

Go to Hard Knox Wire for the rest of this fascinating story.

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01312021 VALERO Memphis Refinery Focht 008Memphis residents have pushed back against the Byhalia Pipeline project. The proposed pipeline has been the subject of controversy since 2019. The joint venture project would build a 49-mile pipeline between Memphis and Mississippi and would run through several Black communities in Memphis. VALERO Memphis Refinery, shown here, is along the Mississippi River’s Lake McKellar in South Memphis. Photo by Karen Pulfer Focht

Opponents of Memphis pipeline cite textbook examples of environmental racism

(This story was originally published by Tennessee Lookout).

Memphis City Council passed an ordinance this month protecting the Memphis Sand Aquifer after environmental activists spent nearly a year fighting to protect it against a crude-oil pipeline.

The city council passed on second reading an ordinance establishing the city government’s role in  overseeing future developments in Memphis and how they may impact the aquifer, which serves as the area’s main drinking water supply. 

The ordinance will be up for a third and final vote on Aug. 17.

Since 2019, environmental and racial justice advocates have protested plans to build the Byhalia Pipeline, a joint venture between Texas-based Plains All American Pipeline and Valero Energy Corporation, in a historically Black neighborhood located in Southwest Memphis. What started as criticisms turned into full-blown protests that gathered national attention and support from prominent political figures, including former Vice President Al Gore and civil rights leader the Rev. William Barber.

The council used the Federal and Tennessee Safe Drinking Water Act as an authorizing agent for local government’s ability to protect public drinking water.

The Memphis City Council first discussed legislation to protect the aquifer in May 2021 and introduced ordinances that would affect the Byhalia Pipeline. 

The resolution established an Underground Infrastructure Advisory Board to review all future developments within Memphis and prohibit those that carried hazardous liquids. According to council documents, developments must not pass within 1,000 feet of the Wellhead Protection Areas, which access existing public water supplies. 

Byhalia Pipeline representatives threatened to file a lawsuit against the city council if they were to pass legislation that regulated future developments, causing the council to delay the vote. 

Byhalia Pipeline representatives then abandoned the project in July but said they still considered filing a lawsuit if the resolution were to pass. 

Councilman Jeff Warren, who sponsored the resolution, said “lawsuits are always possible.”

Local community leaders and critics called the Byhalia Pipeline an example of environmental racism, adding that Memphis communities were already burdened by harmful environmental issues caused by nearby oil refineries, wastewater treatment facilities, industrial manufacturers and power plants.

These factors led to cancer risks four-times the national average, and any contamination of the area’s drinking water could potentially turn the area into another Flint, Michigan, a city whose water system was contaminated with lead.

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Duck RiverMarshall CoThis biologically rich stretch of the Duck River could soon be the site of a large municipal water intake facility.

Duck River targeted by thirsty, growing municipalities in Nashville area

This story was originally published by Tennessee Lookout

Marshall County, located outside what was once considered the boundary edge of growing suburbs circling Nashville, has seen explosive growth of its own in recent years — call it the Williamson County overflow effect, says County Mayor Mike Keny.

Drawn by more affordable housing, jobs and the rural character of the county — about an hour from Nashville in the “heart of the Southern Automotive Corridor” (as local economic development officials call it) — the influx of residents, and some relocating business and industry, has brought new urgency to a long-standing reality.

The county doesn’t have its own water supply. For decades, it has had to pay wholesale for drinking water from the cities of Murfreesboro and Lewisburg. That supply is no longer adequate.

A new proposal by county officials calls for building a water treatment facility along the banks of the Duck River in northern Marshall County capable of siphoning up to 6 million gallons of water per day; establish a reliable local water supply for decades to come.

The need for Marshall County,  to have its own water supply, which it has never had, is becoming more urgent with an influx of new residents. But environmental activists say the nearby Duck River, which is biologically diverse, may not be the best option.  
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2306channelGrading work at a site off Maryville Pike in Knoxville led to silt discharges that resulted in several notices of violation from Tennessee and Knox County regulators. Photo courtesy TDEC.

Critics say new rules could run afoul of Clean Water Act

 

This story was originally published by Tennessee Lookout.

A state plan to rollback longstanding regulations for construction site runoff is drawing opposition from environmental groups who fear that Tennessee creeks and streams will suffer.

Stormwater discharges from construction sites — rainwater that sweeps soil or other particles off-site — can flow into nearby waterways, often creating silt deposits that impact aquatic life and water quality.

Historically, silt has been one of the primary pollutants in Tennessee’s waterways, a paper explaining the proposed new rules from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, or TDEC, said. Just one millimeter of soil spread over a one-acre site can weigh 5 tons, and “even a minor uncontrolled construction activity can cause major impairment in surface water,” through runoff, the paper said.

Nevertheless, TDEC is proposing significant changes in state environmental oversight of builders, developers, property owners, contractors and subcontractors in controlling runoff.

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Juvenile Brook Trout swimming into the water of their new homeJuvenile brook trout swim into the water of their new home during a joint effort to return the species to its rightful range in the Tellico River watershed in the southeastern Cherokee National Forest. Photo courtesy Tennessee Aquarium.

In a virtuous cycle of life, native brookies return to Tellico River watershed in southeastern Cherokee National Forest.

(The writer produced this original piece for the Tennessee Aquarium).

Navigating through a thicket of branches while clambering across slick boulders in a rushing mountain stream is a difficult task in the best of times. Doing so while attempting to balance 40-pound buckets of water filled with imperiled fish takes the challenge to an entirely new level.

A team of scientists from the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute drove to one of the lush, high-elevation streams in the southern reaches of the Cherokee National Forest. During a brief lull between rainstorms, they were joined by Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency representatives and the U.S. Forest Service to celebrate a homecoming for 250 long-lost residents of this gorgeous landscape: juvenile Southern Appalachian brook trout.

Carefully navigating through a snarl of streamside vegetation, participants paused to release five or six trout at a time into pools with overhangs where the young fish could hide from predators and ambush floating insects that washed into the stream. The going was tough, but those involved in the effort to restock almost a kilometer of this pristine creek say the challenge was worth the reward of seeing Tennessee’s only native trout back in its ancestral waters.

“The days when we release fish, especially brook trout, are really special moments,” said Tennessee Aquarium Aquatic Conservation Biologist Dr. Bernie Kuhajda. “We’re with these fish all the way from when we first bring adults into the Conservation Institute to spawn, to watching the eggs start to develop, to the juveniles that are just a few inches long and ready to release here.

“It really is knowing that we get to help restore trout to the full circle of life. Days like today are the culmination of all that work to put trout back into the Southeastern streams where they belong.”

Like many Appalachian streams, this tributary of the North River in the Tellico River watershed hasn’t hosted the brook trout for almost a century. Clearcutting of forests in the early 1900s made waters in the region too warm. Combined with the introduction of brown and rainbow trout, “brookies” were effectively lost from more than 75 percent of the waterways where they once thrived.

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Cigarette butt recycling bin 4

Dollywood joins Tennessee Aquarium effort to limit the introduction of cigarette butts to our shared waterways.

“As all humans need access to clean water, it’s an incredibly important treasure to protect.” — Dr. Anna George, Tennessee Aquarium vice president of conservation science and education.

Cigarette butts are everywhere, and are perhaps so familiar they go unnoticed by the millions of people who pass them on our streets and roads.

Not only are they unsightly, they contaminate our water resources — the puddles after a sudden rainstorm, the streams that flow through our landscapes, and the stormwater drains that ultimately lead to the Tennessee River. The butts quickly break down, polluting water with “tiny plastic fibers and a devil’s cocktail of chemical compounds,” according to the Tennessee Aquarium.

The Chattanooga aquarium has partnered with Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful, an affiliate of Keep America Beautiful, to stem the rising tide of cigarette butts in our waterways.

Dollywood has also embraced the effort, making it the first theme park in the world to recycle all properly disposed cigarette butts.

“One cigarette filter can contain enough toxins to kill aquatic life within two gallons of surrounding water,” said Kathleen Gibi, executive director of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful.

The action fits the mission of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful, which is to inspire the public to take action to protect and preserve the Tennessee River and its tributaries across a seven-state region encompassing Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Kentucky.

Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful and the Tennessee Aquarium have partnered to install cigarette-butt recycling receptacles on the aquarium’s campus. They placed eight of these bins in heavily traveled locations.

“Everybody contributes to the river, whether positively or negatively, so finding stakeholders and inspiring them to take action is what will make the biggest impact,” Gibi said. She also emphasized the importance of the Tennessee Aquarium’s educational programs in protecting water quality.

The aquarium’s eight cigarette-butt bins are among more than 480 such bins that Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful has installed within the river’s watershed. The shared effort will install another 90 during the coming months.

Dollywood is among the 73 sites that have installed bins, making it the first theme park in the world that recycles all the cigarette butts it collects, Gibi says.

Partnering to remove cigarette filters from the river is only part of the aquarium’s ongoing mission to understand the impact on freshwater habitats from microplastics pollution.

Dr. Anna George, the Aquarium’s vice president of conservation science and education, said, “It’s urgent to understand better ways to manufacture and dispose of plastics, so we reduce their impact on the environment.”

The Tennessee Aquarium recently installed a new exhibit in the River Journey Building where visitors can discover the impact of microplastics on freshwater environments. The Tennessee Department of Transportation funded this exhibit as part of their Nobody Trashes Tennessee litter reduction campaign.

In September 2020, the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute and the University of Georgia River Basin Center convened a digital gathering of 50 researchers conducting pioneering studies into the impact of microplastics on freshwater systems.

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124505910 10157221252975764 8815228407492920926 oThe Chattanooga Zoo will soon open an exhibit to hellbenders, such as the one seen here in a tank at the zoo.  Courtesy Chattanooga Zoo

New hellbender exhibit at Chattanooga Zoo will serve as a hub for cooperative research

Thanks to grants from two generous organizations, some oft-elusive hellbenders have a new home at the Chattanooga Zoo. The Hiwassee Education and Research Facility is nearly complete, and it features hellbender exhibits and a classroom. The exhibit includes juvenile hellbenders hatched from eggs collected from the Duck River in central Tennessee in 2015.  

The zoo is also fabricating a stream environment exhibit that will house nine larger sub-adult hellbenders, each about 10 years old and 14.5 inches long. Visitors can observe hellbenders feeding in the completed exhibit, but it will be open only during limited hours. After the project's completion, the zoo plans to partner with researchers who hope to learn more about hellbenders. 

"The Chattanooga Zoo is thrilled at the introduction of its new Hiwassee Hellbender Research Facility," zoo officials said in a statement to Hellbender Press. 

“We believe that this new facility will open rare opportunities for guests to be educated on this otherwise elusive native species, and that the project would lead to important strides made in hellbender research. 

“From all of this, our hope is for more conservation efforts made in our local waterways, also known as the eastern hellbender’s home.”

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Wide scenic winter view into the New River Gorge also shows rapids below a bend and the road and railroad tracks cut into the wooded slopes on opposite sides of the river
The New River in West Virginia is one of the oldest rivers on earth, and it's now included in America's newest national park.  Courtesy National Park Service
 

New River Gorge National Park preserves paddling and climbing paradise

When you think of national parks within a day’s drive of East Tennessee, what comes to mind? Great Smoky Mountains National Park, of course. Or perhaps Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, or Virginia’s Shenandoah. You have a new option.        

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, created by Congress Dec. 27, 2020, by way of a pandemic relief bill, is America’s 63rd and newest national park. Located in southern West Virginia, the 72,186-acre park and preserve protects land along both sides of a 53-mile stretch of the New River, which is famous for its world-class whitewater. It’s walls rise up to 1,400 feet, attracting rock climbers from across the country.

The New River Gorge, known locally as “The New,” currently welcomes about 1.4 million visitors a year. It’s within a day's drive of 40 percent of the U.S. population, and is expecting an initial 20 percent increase in visitation this year because it is now a national park with national attention.

Local merchants and business owners are already touting the economic benefits, including new jobs in in-store retail and dining, two industries decimated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

"We're super excited about it," Cathedral Cafe manager Cassidy Bays said. She said the cafe, just minutes from the park, plans to increase staff and extend hours. "We're even building an outdoor patio to increase dining space," Bays said.

And this is not your grandfather’s West Virginia: Locavores can find locally sourced food and lean into a vegan juice bar. Several community-supported agriculture (CSA) and co-op farms are a main source of the cafe menu. "We actually cater to locavores. We are a farm-to-table restaurant" Bays said.  

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Hellbender hiding among rocks of a Smoky Mountains headwater stream, TennesseeA hellbender blends in perfectly against the rocks of a headwater stream.  Rob Hunter/Hellbender Press
 

Hellbenders get help in face of new challenges, increasing threats

Snot otter. Mud devil. Lasagna lizard. Allegheny alligator. For a creature with so many colorful nicknames, the hellbender is unfamiliar to many people, including millions of visitors to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Julianne Geleynse wants to change that. The resource education ranger is tasked with teaching the public about the natural wonders the park protects within its borders in hopes of mitigating damage to natural resources caused by the millions of visitors, young and old, who enter the park each year.

With a visitor-to-ranger ratio of around 170,000 to 1, communicating with visitors is an ongoing challenge that requires unique solutions. Feeding wildlife and littering are perennial problems, but sometimes new issues emerge. Such was the case in 2017 – and again in 2020.

In 2017, researchers in the park were alarmed to find that hellbender numbers in traditionally healthy populations had dropped. An entire generation of subadult hellbenders seemed to be missing. The most glaring sign of the problem was the presence of dead hellbenders where visitors had moved and stacked rocks in park streams. Moving rocks to create pools, dams and artfully stacked cairns may seem harmless enough when one person partakes. But when hundreds of visitors concentrate in a few miles of stream every day for months on end, the destructive impact is significant. Viral photos of especially impressive cairns can spread on social media and inspire an army of imitators.

Why does moving rocks harm hellbenders? These giant salamanders spend most of their lives wedged beneath stones on the stream bottom. They live, hunt and breed beneath these rocks. In late summer, when temperatures still swelter and visitors indulge in their last dips of the season in park waterways, hellbenders are especially vulnerable as they begin to deposit fragile strings of eggs beneath select slabs. Simply lifting such a rock nest can cause the eggs to be swept downstream and the entire brood lost. As the researchers observed in 2017, moving and stacking stones can even directly crush the bodies of adult hellbenders.

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