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Water as a Human Right: History of Water in Tennessee

March 22, 2021


This post is a transcription of the Water as a Human Right: History of Water in Tennessee episode in our River Talks podcast.  

Catherine Price:

Welcome to the Cumberland River Compact’s River Talks podcast. Our podcast explores topics related to the health, enjoyment, and protection of the Cumberland River basin’s, water, people, and special places. In this season of River Talks, we are exploring water as a human right and how this has been championed and challenged in our state. We will take a close look at the past, present, and future of water in Tennessee through four episodes that weave together the perspectives from a variety of experts in water access, water distribution, and water equity.

Throughout the series, we will deconstruct current issues and develop a collective understanding for a path forward. Be sure to subscribe to River Talks, so you’re notified of every new episode in this series.

We would like to thank Humanities Tennessee for their support of this series. Humanities Tennessee is a nonprofit organization that fosters community and civility in Tennessee through engaging programs that examine and reflect upon ideas, stories, history, arts, and culture. Learn more at

From a young age, water brings a sense of wonder and joy. We fall in love with the magical creatures of underwater worlds from movies, books, and stories. We crave family trips to the lake ocean or simply down the street to the local stream. We may even delight in the joy of a rainy day and splashing in a puddle.

Even as our childhood wonder of water may fade, water continues to be ever-present in our lives. Think about the last time you used water. You probably immediately remember drinking a glass of water or turning on the faucet to wash your hands but take that a step further. When did you last use a product that requires water? It may be hard to visualize, but most objects in our home are produced using some amount of water. Your T-shirt that may have taken seven hundred gallons of water to produce your cotton jeans that took 18 gallons of water. So now let me ask you that question again. When was the last time you used water?

In 2010, the human right to water was officially recognized by the U.N. General Assembly and Human Rights Council, and in 2015, the right to hygienic sanitation services was added to that. According to the U.N., the right to water entitles everyone to have access to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible, and affordable water for personal and domestic use.

There are a few keywords in these definitions to pull out first sufficient. The water supply must be enough for personal and domestic uses. Next, safe. That means the water is free of microorganisms, chemical substances, or other things that are a threat to human health. Water supply should be physically accessible, so it is within the vicinity of the house, school, or business. And finally, water must be affordable for all.

Understanding and valuing water as a human right is crucial to how we address current and future challenges to a thriving water system. Here is Mekayle Houghton, executive director of the Cumberland River Compact, to explore this idea further.

Mekayle Houghton

The U.N. has defined water as a human right, and it’s, you know, obviously it’s necessary to live so and we’re thinking of something like. Medical care is a human right. This is almost once removed, you need water, you need shelter, you need clothing, you need food.

So I think it’s very basic to consider water a human right and the sort of the tension or the friction comes. With the need for utilities to charge for water, so. Then you start to see a disproportionate impact. On poor people, and it becomes akin to a regressive tax where people are spending a larger percentage of their income to cover a basic human right like fresh water to drink and clean with.

Catherine Price

Throughout this series, you’ll hear from water experts in Tennessee as we break down the meaning of water as a human right and these challenges or tensions in our water system.

Here is Jenny Dodd, director of the Division of Water Resources at the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation on that connection.

Jenny Dodd

We think of clean drinking water as a right, and it should be. But so then we forget sometimes that making sure that that water is clean and making sure that it’s delivered, that every time you turn on the tap, it’s there. That’s what costs a lot of money. And we don’t always remember that.

Catherine Price

Many countries have applied the human right to water, to their water policies, but the United States abstained from the U.N. vote and does not technically recognize water as a human right.

However, some states have chosen to enact state laws to set a legislative foundation to realizing water as a human right. California enacted laws in 2012, and in early 2021, Virginia began to advance similar legislation. There are, however, many challenges to upholding water as a human right, and in many ways, the United States still has a long way to go. Here again, is Mekayle Houghton.

Mekayle Houghton

I don’t know of any examples where, in the United States where water is treated as a human right. I know that in Detroit there was a moratorium on cutting off people’s water supply because they were delinquent on their payments, which seems to me to begin to consider water a human right. But I don’t think that our country is anywhere near that level of awareness yet.

Catherine Price

Although the declaration of water as a human right is recent, Tennessee has a unique legal precedent that has positioned our state to consider water rights.

Mekayle Houghton

One thing that is really, really actually beautiful about Tennessee law is that in 1971, the Tennessee Water Control Act was passed, giving everyone in Tennessee the right to unpolluted water. And there are lots of challenges with figuring out how you operationalize that, but I think before there was this UN Declaration of Human Rights, before any of that in 1971, Tennessee put into law that every Tennesseean had a right to unpolluted water.

Catherine Price

The Water Control Act is just one of many past decisions that have led us to where we are today with water in Tennessee, historic practices for water, access for transportation, drinking water industry, and agriculture have all shaped the region that we see today and today.

We also still see our mindset towards water impacted by these historic practices. Before we look at the present and future challenges of water, we will first take a look into the past. Dr. Carole Bucy is a local historian who specializes in Nashville and Tennessee history and often shares about how the natural resources of our region shaped our history. We spoke with her about the history of water in our region.

Dr. Carole Bucy

The water, meaning the Cumberland River and its tributaries here in Middle Tennessee, was our first transportation system. The Native Americans used it. It also was a way to identify particular spots along the river because you identified them between the tributaries. Now, for example, the Native Americans were in and out of here quite a bit hunting, but they gravitated to this area because there is an abundance of places where salt comes naturally out of the ground, a salt licks, if you will. And there were herds of animals around those licks to get the salt and the water then went into the Cumberland River.

So when the settlers from the 13 colonies started coming in to actually settle this, the James Robertson party and the John Donalson party, Robertson had come ahead to identify the spot for this settlement. And he specifically picked this place between where the Salt Creek flows into the Cumberland, which is where the Metropolitan Nashville Davidson County Courthouse is approximately. It flows under a conduit now and Browns Creek, which flows into the Cumberland, not far from the Cumberland River Compact offices.

And so that was the place that he and the men who were with him built for the French, had been using the Cumberland River and its tributaries for probably 50 years before the Robertson party came and settled here. So first and foremost, it was our transportation system. Now, immediately, it also was our place to get drinking water.

And this is something that we as citizens often overlook about the Cumberland River. We take what comes out of our tap every day, what comes out of our shower totally for granted. We think that it’s just there. We don’t ever think about where it comes from. But almost immediately, as the city of Nashville, the town was incorporated. The leaders of this little fledgling community realized that they had to make sure there was some level of cleanliness in the water that people were drinking, that it was known to some and some believed it, that the water did carry diseases. And of course, you can see how a lot of waste being put in the river would also be quite hazardous to people’s health. And so people began using the river for a source of drinking water.

One reason that they didn’t dig wells here in Middle Tennessee was because Nashville sits on this limestone basin down in the Cumberland or Central Basin, and it is hard as a rock. Just look at every construction project going on in middle Tennessee right now. And the drilling of the big hole for the foundation is indeed the hardest part of the construction and the slowest after they get the big hole drilled out. Then putting the skeleton up goes rather quickly. So drinking water became a big issue here in town and saving it was another issue. How to how to keep water for times when we do have a drought and the river may not be as high as it normally is.

Catherine Price

But there were some uses of water that we don’t think about as much today.

Dr. Carole Bucy

We forget today how common fires were in the town of Nashville, the city of Nashville, for such a long period of time. And if you go back through the newspapers, there were businesses burned down on a regular basis, homes burned. You know, once that wooden structure got on fire, we had a water department that was volunteer and they had some trucks to pump water and then bring them to the fire. But before the truck or the wagon actually could get to the fire, the fire was out of control. And so fire was a great fear of people, even people living in the city with a volunteer fire department.

And the fire department ultimately got a little more organized with paid firemen. They got a little more sophisticated equipment. The equipment has progressed over the years here, but they also had a big cistern down near where the courthouse is today, where they kept water, that the pumping trucks could pump the water out of the system to take it to the fire. But think about that, that all the water to put out a fire had to be carried from one place to another.

And so there were a lot of fires from time to time on Second Avenue, Broadway, those streets down there in early Nashville fire was a major hazard. Today, you hear about fires and occasionally you do hear about a house that’s burned to the ground. But the fires were not are not as common today as they were when everything was built out of wood with perhaps some brick or wrought iron as the facade.

Catherine Price

With water used in the early days of Nashville and Tennessee as drinking water, transportation, and fire control, Dr. Bucy explains her interpretation of the early perception of water.

Dr. Carole Bucy

I think people saw it first and foremost as a transportation system in the early days until the railroads came along after the Civil War, it was still the major transportation system, the way to get from one place to another.

Catherine Price

These historic uses sound similar to many of the ways we use water today transportation industry, public safety and, of course, drinking water. Although today we rarely think about how our water gets to us. Distributing water was one of the first challenges that had to be addressed.

Dr. Carole Bucy

Transportation initially was one of the big problems when the city decided that they had to have a more permanent, I guess, pumping station to pump water out of the river and then put it on a reservoir in a reservoir. They distributed it and sold it by the barrel. And so you would have to have a way to get that water and transport it back to where you lived. And so, of course, again, now we’re selling water as a commodity.

And of course, if people who have less or no money are deprived of water to some degree, if they don’t have access to this water that is coming, being pumped out with some rudimentary kind of filter and then saved in a reservoir and sold by the barrel.

Catherine Price

As Dr. Bucy explains, historically, water was viewed as something that can be barreled up, bottled up and sold to those that have the money to purchase it. And for those without the financial means to access the treated water, they could draw directly from the river, even if there were potential health consequences. And there were a few systems to ensure equitable distribution of this natural resource.

Dr. Carole Bucy

As far as water being a right, I think that people didn’t look at it as a commodity exactly. But the fact was that if you couldn’t buy water, you had no choice but to just take the water out of the river, even if you did know it was not as as clean as it should be. That was your only recourse to drink water, bathe in water, wash your clothing in water, provide water for whatever animals you had here in the city of Nashville.

Catherine Price

In addition to challenges to drinking water, our region faced water challenges for transportation. Today, the water flowing in our largest rivers like the Cumberland River and Tennessee River is controlled by a series of locks and dams so boats can travel year-round. But before those systems were in place, we did have times where people worried about transportation if the river dried up or if the water level dropped too low.

Dr. Carole Bucy

The conflict was not really about not having enough water to drink, but the conflict was that it couldn’t it didn’t have enough depth. The Cumberland River did not have enough depth to float barges across the river, which were the transportation systems, ferries, ferries, and barges across the river. For example, up in Sumner County, the Cumberland River is the border between Sumner County and Wilson County. And there was no bridge over the Cumberland River there until after World War Two because neither Wilson County or Sumner county wanted to pay for it. And so there was a ferry, Cole’s ferry, that went back and forth. And in the summer, the river was often too shallow for that ferry with wagons and horses on it to get people back and forth across the river.

And now we have a more stable level of the water, even though the river is significantly higher than it was due to the dams on the on the Cumberland, meaning Old Hickory Dam and the dam on the Stones River there at Percy Priest Dam. But still, it is a challenge for barges and boats if the level is not high enough.

Catherine Price

As we move forward with this series and look at how we view water today, these historical perspectives are important. The ways we viewed water and other natural resources and the development of our cities and communities have implications today.

Dr. Carole Bucy

I think Americans are generally. We have a tradition of being wasteful people, primarily because when the settlers first got here, there was an abundance of land, there was an abundance of everything.

And perhaps wasteful is the wrong word to use. But we are not consciously thinking about conservation. It is not at the top of our mind when we think about turning on the shower and not getting in it till the water, for example, or rinsing the dishes in hot water and let the tap run while you’re washing another dish and then go to rinse it in the other side. So we have not really learned to keep conservation at the top of our minds simply because we have had the great luxury of not having to think about that.

And once you start thinking of that, you know, what can I do with that cold water in the shower if I just can’t stick my foot in there? Well, you put a bucket under there and that becomes the water you use to water your plants. You can do that. You can take the rainwater that comes off your roof and save that in a barrel and water your plants that way. So Americans are getting better at water conservation, but part of it is education and keeping it in front of people. People have to be constantly reminded that water is a gift and a luxury we have with this historic context in mind.

Catherine Price

We can take a look towards the present and future of water. But let’s take a moment to think back to my first question to you, when did you last use water? Now, can you remember a time you didn’t have water? Were you worried about the water running out? Probably not, but we can never take water for granted. Here again, is Mekayle Houghton.

Mekayle Houghton

There’s a sort of looming water crisis in the United States, you see a lot of developed areas and we look at models and we know they’re going to run out of water. We know that that the around the Rocky Mountains, the Colorado River, can’t sustain the population that’s settled there. As the snowpack begins to decrease and so there’s not enough melt, then that water supply just continues to dwindle. And you can see it very graphically when you look at Lake Mead as a water supply for Las Vegas.

And so sort of the very visual representation of what the water line used to be and what the water line is now. So there is a way out west, there’s a crisis for Atlanta. There’s a crisis that the water scarcity issues around us are. I think they’re really frightening, actually.

Catherine Price

Thank you to Dr. Carole Bucy, Mekayle Houghton and Jenny Dodd for joining us in this episode of River Talks. Next time, we’ll explore the ways our water gets to us, starting in the headwaters of our streams and ending at your tap.

This project was funded in part by a grant from Humanities Tennessee, an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.