Harpeth River Impaired According to State of Tennessee

What is the problem with the condition of the Harpeth River? Why is Harpeth Conservancy concerned?

The River is Impaired by Phosphorus Pollution, Low Dissolved Oxygen and Bacteria Pollution

The fundamental issue with the condition of the Harpeth River is that it is impaired by phosphorus pollution at the amounts recently discharged by the City of Franklin. The river also does not meet state water quality standards for low dissolved oxygen. The river thus cannot handle any further pollution. Under these circumstances, the law says no additional phosphorus pollution can be discharged. 

What does it mean that the river is “impaired”?

The federal Clean Water Act requires that states such as Tennessee identify the condition of their waterways every two (2) years and report to the public and the US EPA on the results of its work. Those waters that do not meet applicable state water quality standards even after the use of technology to control pollutant discharges (33 U.S.C § 1313(d)), are required to be listed and are known as “water quality limited” or “impaired.”

The list of impaired waters is known as the “303(d) list.” See Tennessee’s 303(d) List HERE. The Harpeth River is listed on Tennessee’s 303(d) list because it does not meet the water quality standards the State sets for recreation and for fish and aquatic life (see Tennessee’s General Water Quality Criteria HERE). The Harpeth River is on Tennessee’s 303(d) list because it is impaired (in part) by low dissolved oxygen and phosphorus pollution. A substantial cause of both those pollution problems is the Franklin sewer plant. Click HERE for more on the public health and environmental threats of phosphorus pollution. Click HERE for more information on low dissolved oxygen issues).

Impairment Status of the Harpeth River based on Tennessee's 303(d) list.

What’s supposed to happen when a river is on the impaired / 303(d) list?

Tennessee’s own explanation says

What Is the 303(d) List and Why Is It Important?

Section 303(d) of the federal Clean Water Act requires that states develop a compilation of the streams and lakes that are “water quality limited” or are expected to exceed water quality standards in the next two years and need additional pollution controls (i.e. a Total Maximum Daily Load). Water quality limited streams are those that have one or more properties that violate water quality standards. They are considered impaired by pollution and not fully meeting designated uses. …

If a stream is impaired, regardless of whether or not it appears on the 303(d) List, the Division [of Water Resources of TDEC] cannot authorize additional loadings of the same pollutant(s). It may mean that dischargers will not be allowed to expand or locate on 303(d) listed streams until the sources of pollution have been controlled.

When a river is on a 303(d) list, the State is required to conduct a total maximum daily load (or “TMDL” for short), which is supposed be a comprehensive, thorough and objective study of how much pollution the river can handle, how to apportion who gets the ability to discharge how much into the river, and most importantly, how the river is to be restored so it can removed from the 303(d) list. Thus, a TMDL is a pollution reduction study & plan, since its ultimate objective is to restore the river and get it off the 303(d) list.  For more information on TMDLs, click here.

The Harpeth River has been on Tennessee’s 303(d) as impaired by phosphorus pollution since 2004 – for fifteen years. Before that, since 1996, it was considered impaired by “nutrient” pollution. Unfortunately, very little progress has been made toward cleaning up and restoring the river. A new TMDL was announced in 2015, but very little progress has been made under it. Critical first steps, such as preparing work and sampling plans, remain undone even though the new TMDL was announced four (4) years ago. For more information click here.

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