Loophole revealed for Duck River

Friday, March 27, 2009

A way to protect water quality and supply in a watershed such as the Duck River here and up to its headwaters was recently explained by environmental advocates who said state and federal funds are available for such projects.

The idea was revealed during a question and answer session after a state official explained how local governments could obtain federal stimulus money for water and sewer projects. The official confirmed that those federal dollars could be spent to buy property.

However, there's a loophole in the funding system.

Money to buy property can only be used toward compliance with clean water regulations that apply to sewage treatments plants' construction, operation and purpose. Technically, stimulus money isn't to be spent to buy land for drinking water supply purposes.

But the Duck River, Normandy Dam, utilities that rely on Normandy Lake as a source of water, and sewage treatment plants down stream are an interconnected system that would make land purchased for clean water purposes a valuable acquisition for drinking water supply preservation.

It's an ironic twist of government regulation as applied to an ecosystem like the Duck River watershed, according to Margo Farnsworth, senior research consultant for the Cumberland River Compact, an influential private advocacy group that's affiliated with watershed associations, including the Duck River Watershed Association and other associations that also protect, for example, the Harpeth River Watershed.

The interconnection of what state and federal officials call clean water projects (that create and sustain sewage treatment systems) and water supply projects for drinking water plants is as follows in the Duck River Watershed.

Normandy Lake -- the water supply reservoir that dropped so dramatically during the worst part of a drought two summers ago -- is the source of drinking water for Tullahoma and Manchester.

Normandy Dam is used not only to hold back water for supply purposes in Coffee County, but also the release of water downstream through Shelbyville. Controlled release prevents flooding in the Bedford County seat, but the regulated flow also provides river water to dilute effluent from two sewage treatment plants in Shelbyville: one operated by the city; the other by Tyson Foods' chicken processing plant.

Given the requirements of the U.S. Environmental Protection Act, Farnsworth points out that maintaining adequate water supplies in Normandy Lake also provides sufficient flow so that the treated wastewater is discharged into a river with adequate flows to absorb the effluent.

That's expressed with a sing-song saying heard among river advocates and environmentalists: "The solution to pollution is dilution."

As a result, Farnsworth says, protecting the headwaters of the Duck River will achieve two purposes even though funding for land acquisition is available only for projects related to sewage treatment plants.

The idea is to buy land up stream from Normandy Lake for "headwater protection," but the maintenance of water supply -- for funding purposes -- is not for drinking water supply, even though the drought lowered Normandy Lake so much that water supplies for Tullahoma and Manchester were threatened.

Marshall County residents were affected a couple of ways. Two summers ago, Normandy Lake was not the good fishing hole it had been and some boat ramps were unusable. Another impact was the creation of voluntary and mandatory water conservation rules affecting irrigation, car washing and other water uses deemed less than absolutely necessary. The rules were widely seen as irrelevant since water conservation downstream from the dam wasn't going to help maintain the level of Normandy Lake. That was a criticism of the call for conservation, justified by some officials as needing participation by everyone in the watershed.

As other solutions are being sought, headwater protection has become one of the suggestions.

It's been done before, according to Paul Sloan, deputy commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC).

In up-state New York, Sloan said in an interview on Friday last week, land has been purchased to preserve the water source up stream. There, the land purchases were to prevent development that would cover the ground with asphalt and buildings' roofs. It was to sustain the health of the headwaters, not just sustain the flow, but also the quality of the water, he said.

The concept is for "improvements that function more like a healthy watershed," Sloan said.

One of TDEC's missions is to protect the various uses of water, including purposes beyond drinking water supply. That includes fishing, swimming, boating and other uses that depend on a healthy river, lake or other body of water.

"It depends on land use planning," Sloan said.

It's not simple, though. Long-time residents here and in Maury County remember the Columbia Dam project that was started, stopped and disassembled. A new dam in Columbia was part of the original two-dam system envisioned by TVA. The first dam was built at Normandy.

Sloan is well aware of the pearly mussels that are a protected species in the Duck River, and he knows several state and federal agencies are studying the river and how to deal with water flow issues associated with drought, supply and dilution of effluent. The Columbia Dam project was aborted to protect endangered species.

In this mix of wildlife protection and a growing population's need for water, there are environmental advocates such as the watershed associations and the umbrella group, the Cumberland River Compact, that have sought changes in government rules "so you could get more points on state revolving loan fund application for buffer zones" to protect water supplies, Farnsworth said.

State officials reacted positively, in part because of the Environmental Protection Agency.

"This is considered 'green,'" Farnsworth said of such environmentally-friendly projects. "Now, EPA is encouraging green infrastructure, so this put Tennessee ahead with the programs."

Sloan says in Portland, Tenn., and nearby water systems, a pilot program was started to explore the feasibility of headwater protection.

Green projects are favored in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, also known as the federal stimulus package.

Of $6.4 billion in stimulus money to be provided through EPA, there are $4 billion for clean water projects funded through state revolving loan programs, according to the National Association of Development Organizations. A recent report by NADO lists $2 billion as the federal appropriation for drinking water projects.

That's the law, although some money spent to benefit sewage projects will apparently benefit drinking water supply programs.