Watershed Facts / Water Quality of the Harpeth River

Is the Harpeth River Polluted?

Water quality data from the State of Tennessee, federal agencies, and Harpeth Conservancy show that the Harpeth River is impaired throughout much of its length. Based on 2016 assessment information from the Tennessee Department of Environmental Conservation (TDEC), 73 of the 126 miles (58%) of the main river channel do NOT meet state water quality standards set to protect public health and wildlife. The river is impaired due to high levels of E. coli bacteria, low dissolved oxygen levels, phosphorus pollution, sedimentation/siltation, contaminated sediments (e.g., lead), and alterations in stream-side vegetative cover. Municipal point source discharge (e.g., waste water treatment plant effluent), storm sewer discharge from accumulated landscape runoff, and livestock grazing in riparian areas (along the stream banks and margines) are listed as the causes of impairment. An additional 370 miles of creeks and other tributaries flowing into the Harpeth River are considered impaired because of the same sources and causes. Water quality impairment is most acute during the characteristic low-flow periods of the late summer and early fall.

The following maps show mid-watershed river sections impaired by phosphorus pollution and low dissolved oxygen levels.

Want to learn more about streams in your backyard? 

There are now several options for learning about water quality and stream ecosystem health. The Cumberland River Compact, TDEC, and The United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) all have on-line tools that allow the public to learn more about the rivers, creeks, and lakes in Tennessee.

Cumberland River Compact iCreek Tool: The latest and perhaps best water quality information tool to date is available through our partner organization The Cumberland River Compact, whose mission is to "improve the quality of water in the Cumberland River Basin", which includes the Harpeth River Watershed. The tool recently developed by Cumberland River Compact in partnership with the Nature Conservancy of Tennessee is called iCreek. Simply click on the following link, click on the map that appears, click on "all items" under Cumberland River Basins Watersheds in legend on left side of map, and select "Harpeth River". A description of the Harpeth River Watershed will appear on the left with a link to determine the health of your neighborhood stream.You will be redirected to another map that includes instructions to enter your address, which will zoom the map into your neighborhood and allow you to click on any river or creek sections to see if healthy or impaired, as well as reasons for impairment.

Check on river and creek water quality in your backyard now: iCREEK TOOL!

TDEC Water Body Assessment and Information Resources: TDEC is the state agency that regularly monitors water quality of Tennessee's surface waters, including most rivers and creeks in the Harpeth River Watershed. TDEC provides many resources to the public to increase awareness of the current status of our water resources, sources of impairment, causes of degradation, and guidance in terms of protecting and improving our natural resources. TDEC provides a comprehensive on-line tool to view and download water quality information, as well as water resource management information on a huge variety of topics. The following are a few links to useful information found on the TDEC web site.

1. Interactive map for water quality information in the Harpeth River Watershed and throughout Tennessee: Division of Water Resources Public Data Viewer.

2. To see the latest list of impaired water bodies in Tennessee: TDEC 2016 303(d) list. 

3. For a comprehensive list of water quality reports and other publications: TDEC Water Quality Reports.

USEPA How's My Waterway Tool: The USEPA also has a tool that allows you to access and review water quality information for water bodies in your area. Since passage of the Clean Water Act amendments in 1972, states have been required to provide water quality information to the EPA every other year, which are available to the public. However, they are coated with complicated scientific language that is often difficult to understand. The great thing about the EPA tool is that it omits the complex terminology and puts the information in a fun and easy to understand format. Just type in your zip code and you will receive all data within a 5-mile radius!


What's in your WATER?

A recent study by the US Geological Survey (USGS), reported by ABC News, found that our drinking water doesn't just contain good old H2O.  We are learning that waste water treatment plants and drinking water purification plants cannot completely remove many pollutants that we put into our water.  These pollutants can make their way into waste water treatment plants, which eventually enter the environment as treated effluent, in a variety of ways: 1) when we pour items containing these pollutants down the drain or flush them down the toilet, 2) through non-point source pollution from polluted runoff into lakes, rivers, and oceans, 3) leakage from landfills, or 4) from point-source pollution.  Very small amounts of these contaminants have been detected in lakes, rivers, oceans, and estuaries, and have also been detected in our drinking water.  This includes: pathogens (bacteria, viruses, parasites), inorganic chemicals (metals/metalloids, salts, oxyhalides, such as chlorates), nutrients (nitrate, phosphorous), organic chemicals (trace organic chemicals from domestic or industrial use), industrial chemicals (solvents, detergents, petroleum mixtures, flame-retardants), pesticides, pharmaceuticals and personal care products, household chemicals and food additives (cleaning  products, sugar alternatives), naturally occurring chemicals, and byproducts of wastewater treatment.

What does this mean?

Studies have not yet found these contaminants to be harmful to human health.  However, we are not the only animals who rely on clean water for survival.  Scientific studies show that there is an increase in reproduction problems among aquatic animals.  Fish are consistently found with both male and female reproductive organs, and reproduction in mussels is becoming impaired.  Scientists believe this could be attributed to the presence of the contaminants listed above.  Even though we don't know yet if humans are affected, it is clear that a problem is emerging in the aquatic population.  We shouldn't wait around until a problem emerges among humans as well. It's safer and smarter to stop this problem now before it's too late.

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