River Science

Harpeth Conservancy's Science & Restoration program plans and implements projects that protect and improve water quality and ecosystem health in Tennessee rivers. These projects can be divided into two categories: (1) River Science Research and (2) River Restoration.

What We Do

Our science research seeks to strategically study and monitor our rivers to better understand their overall health as well as current and potential threats such as pollution and degradation.

Read more below about the top water quality issues for rivers in Tennessee and our Citizen Water Quality Monitoring Program.

Water Quality Issues in Tennessee Rivers

Citizen water quality monitoring program

Recreational waters are threatened by fecal contamination from urban and agricultural drainage that may contain human pathogens associated with gastrointestinal and respiratory illness. Many recreational beaches and rivers around the United States are monitored for fecal contamination, which indicates a threat to human health. According to the Center for Disease Control, the top causes of recreational water illnesses are human pathogens that can be monitored via E. coli sampling.  

Unfortunately, the state of TN performs very little E. coli sampling particularly in our highly recreated rivers and none of these sampling efforts are paired with predictive modeling, which provides the general public “early warning” notice if waters may be unsafe to swim based on levels of E. coli.

Harpeth Conservancy strives to mitigate this problem through our Citizen Water Quality Monitoring Program. Every year, we recruit and support a network of citizen scientists who help us monitor water quality in Middle TN rivers and streams. The initial launch of this program in 2020 focused on regular sampling of E. coli at highly recreated sections of the Harpeth River. In 2021, we expanded our sampling sites to sections of Richland Creek and Mill Creek in Nashville. In 2022, we expanded to include sections of Browns Creek and Whites Creek in Nashville. In 2023, our fourth year of monitoring, we’ve added the Cumberland River and Piney River for a total of 12 sampling sites.

2023 Citizen Water Quality Monitoring Program Sites

2023 Sampling Sites: Harpeth River, Richland Creek, Mill Creek, Browns Creek, Whites Creek, Cumberland River, Piney River (not pictured)

2023 Sampling season

Over the next few months (late-May – September), our network of citizen scientists will be collecting water samples at 12 locations on rivers and streams in Middle Tennessee to test for E. coli. The data collected will help calibrate our predictive model that we are going to launch this year as TN Water Watch – a real time alert system that will 1) help us determine when levels of E. coli are elevated at our favorite recreation spots and, 2) give the public access to safety advisories so we can make informed choices about when and where to enjoy the water. As the weather heats up and people get out and enjoy the water, it is more important than ever to make sure that our rivers and streams are safe places to recreate.

Sampling is easy, and takes no more than an hour each week, but will have a tremendous impact on public safety. Each citizen scientist is assigned a specific testing location each week and delivers the samples to our office in Brentwood, TN, where we will take them to a lab for analysis. We will also test for turbidity (cloudiness of the sample) in our office.

Thank you to our 2023 citizen scientists and summer interns for your commitment to protecting and preserving our waterways for all who depend upon them – from turtles and crayfish who call our waterways home to the neighbors and pets who enjoy them and rely on them for clean drinking water!

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