This post is a transcription of the Water as a Human Right: The Water System episode in our River Talks podcast.
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 HumanitiesTennessee.org.
Water is central to life as a Tennesseean. Manufacturing, agriculture, hunting, fishing, recreation and tourism are all water-dependent industries contributing to the state’s economy. In 2015, agriculture and forestry contribute 82 billion dollars to Tennessee’s economy, while water-based recreation and tourism contributed $2.1 billion. Our waterways are also aquatic highways, moving commercial transports with roughly 22 million tons moved on the Cumberland River in 2015 alone. And of course, we need water to drink clean debate. In this episode, we will explore our water system from the source of our waterways, the distribution systems, and how water is budgeted for its many uses. We will consider how Tennessee’s challenges to safe, sufficient, and accessible water impact how water is a human right is championed in our state.
When it rains that water flows downhill over the land to a common water body. This is what we call our watershed. When the land in our watershed is kept as green, spongy, and absorbent space, water will naturally infiltrate into the ground, restoring groundwater and feeding flow in small streams and rivers. These small streams eventually make up the larger bodies of water we use for drinking water.
Across Tennessee, drinking water comes from surface water like the Cumberland River and groundwater like the Mississippi Aquifer. Most of West Tennessee relies on groundwater, Middle Tennessee relies on surface water, and East Tennessee relies on a little bit of both. And many in our state still use personal water supplies like wells that tap into additional groundwater reservoirs. And although groundwater and surface water may seem separate, they are connected intricately and both important to maintaining clean water. Here’s Mekayle Houghton, executive director of the Cumberland River Compact, on these connections.
Flow in our streams and rivers is made up of surface drainage to those areas and groundwater kind of spring-fed system, so most streams will have both groundwater source, which would be a spring popping up and feeding into that stream and then surface water.
So the only way that we get groundwater is through infiltration. And these open kind of headwaters systems is, is where we get that groundwater replenishment. So if we pave over. All of these replenishment zones, then all we’re going to have is surface runoff and you can get a lot of surface runoff during the rain rainy season. But when the dry weather comes, there’s no groundwater to feed your year’s streams and rivers. So they run dry.
And in Nashville, this is what you see in Mill Creek, where in the summertime you’ll see spas of Mill Creek dry with isolated puddles and all of the fish crowded into one shrinking puddle because there’s not enough groundwater replenishment to sustain the base flow of Mill Creek.
As Mekayle mentioned, these small headwater streams might not seem like a lot when we look at them, but they are the building blocks to a healthy aquatic ecosystem and maintaining flow in our larger sources of water that we end up using for drinking water.
To give you another example. Here’s Margo Farnsworth, the former executive director of the Cumberland River Compact. She’s a leading expert on the connections between water and people. And we’ll hear from her in later episodes. But here’s how she describes these important waterways.
Just like in our bodies, our blood cells are formed. Much more blood cells are formed in the marrow of our bones. That’s what headwaters are to river systems. That’s like where the blood is formed. And if you cut those off or you don’t protect those areas, then you can be in a world of hurt.
So to protect and provide clean water as a human right, we must first think about protecting these source water areas that provide public water supply and ecosystem benefits. And protecting water creates a ripple effect to protecting our environment as a whole.
Healthy water is part of a more holistic and healthy environment. So when our soil is healthy because we farm it. Using regenerative agriculture or cover crops and no-till farming, when our soils healthier, our food is going to be healthier because there are less additives. And if there are less additives, there’s less running into the water. So the water is going to be healthier. Our economies will be healthier because we are making local farms more profitable.
I think the same happens in urban neighborhoods where we’re planting trees. And of course, the water is healthier. If you have trees, the air is healthier. Psychologically, we’re healthier because we have sort of all the stress reduction benefits of trees. So so water, of course, water is sort of the keystone, but it has these sort of ripple effects out of just creating a healthier environment, creating healthier people. And I and I really believe creating a healthier society.
In the first episode of the series, we talked about the looming water crisis in the United States and how water scarcity and water shortages may become more common, even though Tennessee may not be a state that is traditionally concerned with water shortages, planning for the future of water is important and complicated. It’s hard enough to predict when it will rain and how much it will rain, let alone how that rainwater will move through an entire watershed and then ultimately how it will be used.
One tool that is used to understand water use is a water budget. A water budget accounts for the rates of water movement and storage throughout the atmosphere, land, surface, and subsurface. Although simple in concept, water budgets may be difficult to accurately determine. Mekayle Houghton explains more.
A water budget is balancing. How much water you take out of a system with how much water is needed, so there’s a lot of study from US Geological Survey about actually how much flow is needed into in a river to sustain its ecosystem. And in many of the headwaters systems of the Cumberland River, we’ve got incredibly precious. Ecosystems and biodiversity to preserve, so not withdrawing too much water should be at the forefront of our thinking.
The challenge is exacerbated because after the drought in 2013. A lot of farms were incentivized, financially incentivized to build irrigation systems and and they can just pull that water for irrigation out of the nearest stream. And there’s no accounting for how much water they pull out of the stream.
So if it’s similar to what’s happening out west, if farm after farm after farm is pulling out water and it’s there’s no accounting for it, then then it’s impossible to know how how much water is being used and how much we need. So it’s a voluntary reporting system now. But I’m not really sure how many people voluntarily monitor their water use.
Next time you turn on the faucet to wash your hands, take a second to think a bit deeper about where that water comes from, starting at those tiny important headwater streams that form the marrow of our water system. Consider how the land where that water flows forms a healthy environment and ecosystem.
It’s easy to think of that water as infinite, but as we’ve heard so far. Water scarcity is certainly a growing concern. If we think back to the first episode in this series, we learned from Dr. Carole Bucy that communities in Middle Tennessee developed in places that had access to abundant water. Think of Nashville’s proximity to the Cumberland River or Chattanooga to the Tennessee River. All of these communities have a close water source.
But today, many communities and many new and growing communities are not as close to a water source, and this is one of the big challenges in our state.
I think Tennessee’s challenge is that we have an abundant supply of clean water and so we don’t really treat it as a precious commodity in Tennessee, when you get into water scarcity issues in Tennessee, usually, it’s because somebody has decided to build a community too far from a water supply. So you then you have a community with no water supply and that community struggles to figure out how to economically sustain and grow itself without water.
So in those cases, typically, they’ll want to either dam a river or stream nearby because that’s the least expensive way. Or they’ll talk about building a water transfer from the Cumberland River or from another town so that they can access clean water. So there’s a great need for intentional community planning and not letting communities be built where the land is the cheapest. But by bringing to the front a water supply that can sustain that community. But that gets into a little bit of, you know more regulation or government involvement than Tennessee is used to, so so it’s a new way of growing our economy. It’s a way that. We don’t have a lot of experience or passion for.
The abundance of water in Tennessee is a bit of a double-edged sword. With so much water in our state, water conservation isn’t always top of mind for many Tennesseans in their everyday lives or in regional planning at the state level. Jenny Dodd, the director of the Division of Water Resources with the Tennessee Department of the Environment and Conservation, also sees this as a challenge for the utilities in growing areas.
We’re very lucky in Tennessee to have an abundance of water, but there are still some places in Tennessee that don’t have as much water as others. And so as the population grows in those areas, we see challenges.
We all know Tennessee’s population is growing and the Nashville area is a particular hot spot of focus. Ron Taylor with Metro Water Services manages the Clean Water Nashville program, and he shared a bit more about the challenge of water availability and population growth, particularly in middle Tennessee.
We do have a few challenges. Source availability is certainly one that we’re blessed in Nashville because we’re in this bowl and the Cumberland River flows right past our doorstep. You get further away from Nashville, particularly to the south, and they don’t have that blessing of water resources. So when you’re in Williamson County, Rutherford County, typically when you add growth, it becomes more and more challenging then to provide adequate water supply for drinking water and adequate water supply for discharging the treated effluent.
Growth is certainly an issue somewhat for Nashville, but Nashville’s growth rate is about one percent per year. And you get to the counties surrounding Nashville, it’s as much as two and a half percent per year. So that puts a real strain on utilities for Rutherford County, Williamson County, Sumter County. We’re not quite as pressured as some of those counties are or the impact of growth.
Most of us, when we think about water and if you ask kids, a lot of kids, but you can ask older people to where their water comes from and they really do just connected with the tap. You know, I go to the tap, I turn it and I get my water and they don’t really think about where it comes from and what it takes to get there.
That’s Margo Farnsworth sharing the common perception people have about water. We heard from Margo in our first episode and we will hear more from her in later episodes. Let’s take a closer look at that connection between water in a stream and water in our taps. Getting water from its source all the way to us relies on significant water infrastructure, water from surface water sources like the Cumberland River is brought into a water treatment plant where it is filtered, cleaned and treated to the highest standards for distribution.
That water is then sent through thousands of miles of pipes to residents in Nashville alone, more than three thousand miles of pipes, transport treated drinking water to our homes, schools and businesses, and these pipes can be up to five feet wide.
After we use that water, it is sent back to a wastewater treatment plant where it is treated and then sent back into the source water like the Cumberland River. This is why we can’t simply separate water we see in our rivers and streams from the water that comes out of our taps. It’s all connected. It’s all the same.
And in our first episode, Dr. Bucy, mentioned that historically the infrastructure to move water was a central challenge of our region. And today, infrastructure continues to be a challenge as we are tasked with distributing drinking water through aging infrastructure.
Here again is Jenny Dodd.
The challenges in Tennessee are very similar to the challenges that are across, especially the Southeast, if not the entire country. One of the large ones is our aging infrastructure. A number of our systems were developed and built 30, 40 years ago. And so the maintenance I mean, you can imagine any large capital construction project like roads, you have to continue doing maintenance. And with pipes that are underground, that complicates it even more. So the amount of money that’s necessary to maintain and keep the systems running correctly and meeting requirements and rules is is a challenge.
Ron Taylor with Metro Water Services in Nashville gives us a deeper perspective on this infrastructure issue in Nashville.
We have water and sewer lines that date back to the 1880s, some 60 percent of our water and sewer lines are more than 40 years old. So replacing, maintaining, restoring that distribution and collection infrastructure is a long journey and expensive.
Our current water infrastructure as a result of decisions made a long time ago.That’s one of the reasons it’s so important to understand the historic context of our water system. Another infrastructure challenge in Nashville is the combined sewer system. In this system, the pipes that carry wastewater and stormwater are connected with the intention that the system treats both wastewater and stormwater. However, when too much rain falls, these systems have overflows of untreated water into the Cumberland River. The decision to implement a combined sewer system is one that was done across many cities in the US and represents a powerful decision of the past that has implications. Ron Taylor describes more.
The decision on combined sewers is probably more of a mixed bag combined sewers were installed starting in the late eighteen hundreds to deal with cholera outbreaks, which are killing thousands of people in Nashville and other communities. So from the standpoint of correcting that public health problem, it was a great choice in terms of compliance. Today, though, it’s a little bit more of a challenge, and argue that combined sewers can provide some environmental benefit because that first runoff and we have a rainfall event that hits Nashville is captured and treated.
There is concern, though, that later on for bigger rainfall events, some of that flow can be discharged untreated, so the cost of complying to address those concerns can be significant. So once again, there was some good and bad in making those technology decisions a long, long time ago.
Despite the challenges we face today with water, we can also use a historic perspective to see how far we’ve come.
We certainly have challenges in the future in Tennessee. But for perspective, consider how far we’ve come in the last 60 years. It wasn’t until 1958 the Nashville had any treatment of sewage. In 58, you had one hundred and seventy-five thousand people in Nashville and all their sewage went to the river untreated. So the fact that now we’ve had adequate treatment throughout middle Tennessee and not just adequate, but excellent treatment, we’ve got many facilities that do nutrient to control algae growth.
We’ve changed disinfection to get away from chemical disinfectants, to use the light. Many facilities take their residuals of treatment and convert it to biosolids so it stays out of the landfill and provides benefit to the environment. So although we’ve come a long way, we still have those challenges.
As we look to the future and consider how we can ensure clean water as a human right in Tennessee, understanding the broader water system like the small headwater streams along with the water that comes out of our tap is vital.
These systems are intricately connected and the challenges faced in providing clean water occur at all levels of this system. Three of the core components of water as a human right, consider that it is safe, sufficient, and accessible. In Tennessee, we see challenges in all three of these areas, development in new parts of the state, away from water sources, along with population growth impacts sufficient and accessible water. While our aging infrastructure can impact both water safety and accessibility. And what we see today is a result of past decisions with lasting impacts.
Thank you to Mekayle Houghton, Jenny Dodd, Ron Taylor and Margo Farnsworth for sharing their perspectives on our water system and our challenges in the next episode. We will continue exploring the current and future challenges to water in our state while also considering their connections to water as a human right. And finally, we will consider what we need to do to build a thriving future.
This project was funded in part by a grant from Humanities Tennessee, an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.