Watershed Facts / About the Watershed

The Harpeth River is 125 miles long with over 1000 miles of tributaries.  There are five major tributaries: the West Harpeth, the Little Harpeth, the South Harpeth, Turnbull Creek, and Jones Creek.

The Harpeth River meanders through agricultural, forested and suburban areas of six counties in the greater Nashville region until it joins the Cumberland River. The Harpeth River watershed refers to the total area of land — 870 square miles — which drains into the Harpeth River. The Harpeth is one of a system of unique freshwater rivers in the Southeastern United States, which contains a greater variety of aquatic life than anywhere else in the world.

Humans are just one of the many species that call the Harpeth River Watershed their home.  Click here to learn: what’s in my RIVER?

If you live in the watershed, at least some, if not all of your drinking water comes from the river.  We all know water as that Mickey Mouse-shaped molecule of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen.  Unfortunately due to pollution, there is much more to it than that.  Click here to learn:  what’s in my WATER?

In the news

The Harpeth River has been listed on the 2012 TEN WATERS TO WATCH list! The Harpeth has been recognized in 2012 for the lowhead dam removal project by the National Fish Habitat Partnership which works nationwide to conserve fish habitat. The partnership of federal, state and other entities implement the National Fish Habitat Action Plan. The Harpeth river lowhead dam removal and restoration project helps meet these goals and received $350,000 from federal funds as a result. See press release.

Archaeologically and historically significant

The Harpeth River flows through some of the most archaeologically and historically significant areas in Tennessee. Fishermen and canoeists enjoy the river’s peaceful beauty and the wide variety of fish, crayfish, mussels and other aquatic life. The Harpeth is one of the unique freshwater river systems of the Southeast, which contain a greater variety of aquatic life than anywhere else in the world.

About one-third of the Harpeth River watershed is located in one of the fastest growing regions in the country — Williamson County. Rapid development, certain agricultural activities, some poorly functioning sewage systems, and other pressures mean that, of the assessed portions of the Harpeth River, about 25% fail to meet all state water quality standards, including 73 miles of the main river from its headwaters in Eagleville to Pegram.

The primary threat to the river’s health is the region’s rapid growth. Development is quickly transforming the landscape from forests and pastures to parking lots, streets and rooftops, causing rain to rush off the land instead of soaking into the ground. Stormwater runoff is polluted, causes flooding, and erodes stream and riverbanks. Pavement also prevents precious rain from soaking into the ground so that wells and creeks dry up more readily and summer river levels are lower than in the past. As a result, oxygen levels in the Harpeth reach low levels in the summer that make the river susceptible to major fish kills like the one that occurred in Franklin in 1999.

Our Biggest Challenges:

Losing our precious rainwater as creeks flow faster and muddier

As more land is converted from pastures and forests to pavement and rooftops, rain no longer soaks into the ground to percolate gradually to nearby streams and creeks. Instead, it immediately flows into storm drains and rushes into delicate creeks at high speed, washing away banks and vegetation. This causes both pollution and increased flooding in developed areas. Wells are drying up, and creek and river levels are lower than in the past because less rainwater is absorbed into the ground. Conventional developments have so much pavement that they dramatically reduce the amount of rain soaking into the ground. Instead, virtually all the rain pours into storm drains and reaches nearby creeks through stormwater systems that do not necessarily control flooding.

Pollution—it comes from us all

You might think that factories and sewage treatment plants are the big polluters, but in reality pollution comes from everywhere. Rain runs off yards, golf courses, construction sites, roads, and farms into nearby creeks and then into the Harpeth—bringing with it sediment, toxics, fertilizers, overflow from failing septic systems, and animal wastes. This is called “nonpoint source” pollution, since it doesn’t come from a single source. Nonpoint source pollution is increasing with growth and can raise the cost for water utilities to produce drinking water from the region’s rivers.

Poor streambank habitat

In a natural setting, streams have thick vegetation on both banks. Streamside vegetation helps hold streambanks in place, and also slows and filters surface water flowing into the stream. With development and landscaping, this vegetation (the riparian corridor) is often lost—either paved over or mowed down, leaving the stream with no bank-side protection. Water temperatures rise, threatening fish and other aquatic life. Nonpoint source pollution also increases and bank erosion becomes a serious threat.