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Restoring a Historic Stream Along the Natchez Trace

November 20, 2023
The high banks of Trace Creek show significant erosion. Each rainstorm washes away more dirt, polluting the downstream waters with silt and further destabilizing the land in Stephens Valley.

Tucked along the border of Williamson and Davidson counties and bordered on three sides by the Natchez Trace, the Stephens Valley neighborhood is a developing community that is making room for the peace and tranquility of the natural world. The community has prioritized access to nature by providing trails for residents to enjoy the surrounding landscape and even has a resident honey bee colony.  But what makes Stephen’s Valley special, is their particular attention to the restoration of the neighborhood’s waterways. At first glance, Trace Creek may seem unremarkable. But upon closer inspection, one realizes it’s in trouble.  The banks are actively eroding and choked with invasive species of non-native vines, shrubs, and trees.

The creek runs four miles – including two miles through Stephen’s Valley – before flowing into the Harpeth River, taking with it the eroded soil and degraded water quality from just upstream. For over twenty years, the Tennessee Division of Water has reported that Trace Creek “insufficiently supports aquatic life” due to the loss of natural habitat and pollution from silt. 

“As Land Innovations and Rochford Realty and Construction Company were evaluating comprehensive stormwater solutions for Stephens Valley it became apparent that Trace Creek had some major issues and we wanted to do something to change that. Stewardship of the land is vitally important.” says David Horwath with Land Innovations. “Our search led us to Cumberland River Compact. Everyone from the Land Trust and Development team could not be more excited to transfer this property over to Cumberland River Compact to restore, protect, and nurture this regional treasure for generations to come.

The Cumberland River Compact specializes in small and large-scale stream restoration projects across the Cumberland River basin. Previous projects include the Richland Creek dam removal at McCabe Golf Course, Moss Wright Bank Stabilization project in Goodlettsville, and stream restoration on the west fork of the Red River at Billy Dunlop Park in Clarksville.

Trace Creek in Stephens Valley will be one of the largest, suburban stream restoration projects in Tennessee history. Nearly 14,000 feet of stream (2.6 miles) will be restored and permanently protected by a conservation easement.  

The History of Trace Creek

Trace Creek begins near Pasquo Road in Williamson County and flows east through the Stephens Valley neighborhood.  The creek joins the Harpeth River just behind the Publix Supermarket on Highway 100.  Trace Creek’s headwaters are within the Natchez Trace – a historic trail and protected area that extends roughly 440 miles from Nashville, Tennessee to Natchez, Mississippi, connecting the Cumberland, Tennessee, and Mississippi rivers. Originally traveled by the Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Natchez native American tribes, the Natchez Trace became a significant route used by European explorers and soldiers in the Revolutionary War.  Today, the Natchez Trace is a tourist destination for those looking to enjoy nature, see the changing colors of leaves in the fall, and drive the scenic parkway.

Habitat loss threatens the survival of the Cerulean Warbler, a migratory bird that summers in Tennessee. Credit: National Audubon Society.

Trace Creek is likely tens of thousands of years old. Across millennia, the stream slowly evolved with its surrounding environment in a state of dynamic equilibrium. That is to say, it was an active, natural feature – as all healthy streams are – but it existed within a relatively stable state. Over time, Trace Creek evolved to carry an expected amount of water and sediment from the surrounding watershed to downstream waterways.  A rich diversity of plants and animals called Trace Creek home, and these species evolved right along with it. It’s a remarkable history that is surprisingly easy to overlook.  

The creek would have been home to a rich array of sensitive species – species like portable-case building caddisflies, lungless salamanders, and beautifully colored, freshwater darters. Migratory animals that are declining in population today – irreplaceable birds like the Cerulean Warbler – would have enjoyed plentiful support from mature tulip poplar trees, American sycamores, oaks, and other plants within Trace Creek’s healthy floodplain.    

We know what Trace Creek could have been by looking at nearby streams in similar ecosystems.  Unfortunately, the creek was located near prime farming land and the subsequent actions of humans took their toll. 

Rerouting Streams and Destroying Biodiversity

For over 100 years, Trace Creek has been impacted by agriculture. Natural meandering streams slow down plowing, planting, and harvesting.  That is why a common agricultural practice is to reroute and straighten streams that are adjacent to fields.  New, straight pathways are carved into the land to redirect the squared edges of the farm fields. Many decades ago, when the land surrounding Trace Creek was cleared and the waterway was rerouted from its natural course, it knocked the stream out of equilibrium with its surrounding environment. 

Suddenly, the volume and velocity of water and sediment draining from the watershed and moving through the creek channel was dramatically different. The alterations set into motion accelerating issues with erosion and habitat loss. Within the stream, ecologically critical species of macroinvertebrates (insects in their nymph and larval stages, as well as snails and crayfish that spend at least part of their lives in water) were buried beneath the muck. Newly exposed soil along the banks and atop the floodplains were colonized by highly invasive, non-native plants  Our local insects have not evolved to eat these plants and the food supply continues to dwindle as invasive species choke out native habitat.

Thankfully, this bleak scene doesn’t have to end here. The Compact’s Compensatory Stream Mitigation Program focuses on stream restoration projects across the Cumberland River basin.  Impacted streams can be rerouted to their natural winding path, populated with native plants species, in a multistage process that will improve water flow, habitat, and biodiversity.

The Path To Restoration

The Compact has partnered with Ecosystem Planning and Restoration, Land Mechanic Designs, the Rochford Company, and Land Innovations to execute the restoration project which broke ground in November of 2023.

“After years of planning, we’re excited to begin this project. We’re grateful to the Stephens Valley community for sharing this vision with us and for their enthusiasm to restore their neighborhood stream to its natural state,” says Mekayle Houghton, the Cumberland River Compact’s Executive Director. “As a tributary to the Harpeth River, it’s important to restore Trace Creek’s water quality and native habitat.”

The Stephen’s Valley stream restoration project broke ground in November 2023. After removing invasive species and regrading the stream, tens of thousands of native trees and shrubs will be planted.

Upon completion, the conditions of the site will be carefully monitored and managed for seven years to ensure success. The entire site – roughly 44 acres of creek and adjacent streamside areas – will be permanently protected within a conservation easement held by the Cumberland River Compact.

In the next 6 months, the area around Trace Creek will be transformed.  Early in the process, invasive species will be removed.  This entails the use of heavy machinery to remove privet, honeysuckle, multiflora rose, stilt grass, and other persistent non-native plants.

An example of a restored stream that has been rerouted to a natural meandering path.

Next, floodplains, channels, and in-stream habitat will be built, returning the stream to its natural route.  The plans will mimic the conditions found in the most pristine, unimpacted streams of the Western Highland Rim and Outer Nashville Basin – the “ecoregion” that surrounds Trace Creek and shaped it over millennia. Though trees must be cut down to do this work, as many as possible are being recycled to construct in-stream habitat – riffles, toewood, log rollers, and more. Herbaceous plant seed, willow shoots, and biodegradable fiber matting will help keep soils in place as construction crews complete this step. 

Following construction, the floodplains surrounding the creek will be planted with tens of thousands of native trees and shrubs and hundreds of pounds of native grass and flower seed – black willows, water oaks, tulip poplars; elderberries, silky dogwoods, and spicebush; big bluestem grass, lance-leaved coreopsis, and brown-eyed susan are only a few of several dozen unique species being planted.

This vision of a healthy, thriving, stream is the present-day goal for restoring Trace Creek. Project work will return streams to their natural paths, restore the natural floodplain, stabilize eroding banks, improve native habitat in and along the streams, and increase greenspace and native vegetation along streambanks. Photo: Reedy Creek Restoration

The Cumberland River Compact has set aside funding to monitor and adaptively manage in-stream conditions and streamside vegetation at the site for seven years to ensure its ecological success. After seven years, the site will be permanently protected and monitored by the Compact within a conservation easement. 

The size of this project offers the Compact a meaningful opportunity to safeguard local ecology. 

“With a little time and careful work, Trace Creek can become a tremendous asset to the people and ecologies of Williamson County,” says Houghton. “As the creek becomes healthier and healthier, residents, human and non-human, will enjoy the benefits of improved water quality for generations to come.”

The Compact’s Compensatory Stream Mitigation Program

The restoration of Trace Creek in Stephen’s Valley is paid for by the Compact’s Compensatory Stream Mitigation Program.  When a developer impacts a stream, state and federal laws require them to pay for the restoration of an equal amount of stream somewhere else within the watershed. Instead of having the developer restore small areas that won’t provide sufficient habitat for wildlife to thrive, the Compact – through its Compensatory Stream Mitigation Program – can accept the developer’s restoration obligations for payment, pool funds with funds from other developers, and locate large restoration projects in conservation priority areas that are large enough to meaningfully support our region’s biodiversity.  

Any project the Compensatory Mitigation Program completes is permanently protected within a conservation easement. This easement protects the restoration project in perpetuity from impacts such as mowing, logging, mining, agriculture, and development.

The Compact is working diligently to restore miles of connected streams and floodplains, reestablish critical habitat for native species, and safeguard our regions’ immensely valuable natural heritage. 

Make a Difference for Water Quality in the Cumberland River Basin.

The Cumberland River basin is home to 3 million people and thousands of species and is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world.  Protecting and restoring the creeks, streams, and rivers of the basin is crucial to providing clean drinking water and thriving habitat for plants, animals, and people.

Making a one-time or recurring gift to the Cumberland River Compact helps to carry out stream restoration projects and other water conservation initiatives across the Cumberland River basin.

 


Author Bio

Jed Grubbs is the Program Manager of Watershed Planning and Restoration at the Cumberland River Compact and has been with the organization since 2013. In his role, Jed co-administers the organization’s In-Lieu Fee Mitigation Program. Jed has a masters degree in Environmental Planning and certificates in Watershed Management and Geospatial Information Technologies from Virginia Tech. In addition, he has a certificate in Applied Fluvial Geomorphology from Wildland Hydrology and Project Management Professional certification from the Project Management Institute.

 

Meagan Hall

Meagan Hall is the Development and Communications Director at the Cumberland River Compact where she leads the Compact’s fundraising, marketing, and external communication initiatives. Meagan has a BFA in textiles from the Appalachian Center for Craft and a certificate in Nonprofit Fundraising from the University of Washington. She leads native and medicinal plant walks and teaches natural dye textile classes throughout Middle Tennessee.