Restoring the Harpeth River

One of America's Most Endangered Rivers in 2015

As the Harpeth River flows through Davidson County in Nashville before emptying into the Cumberland River, it carries the unique distinction of being a State Scenic River. It is an important recreation destination in Middle Tennessee and has rich aquatic biodiversity. The health of the river, which provides tremendous aesthetic, recreational, and biological value to Tennessee, is being threatened. In 2015, American Rivers named the Harpeth River one of America's Most Endangered Rivers, a designation given to rivers with significance to human and natural communities that are facing critical decisions in the coming year.

Threats to the River

The Harpeth River flows through the heart of downtown Franklin, one of the fastest growing city in the United States, and traverses Williamson County, one of the fastest growing counties in Tennessee. This rapid development threatens the river with mounting pollution from stormwater runoff and treated sewage and increasing demands for water withdrawal. During the summer months when the river experiences natural low flows, sewage effluent can dominate the river. The pollution problem is exacerbated by the withdrawal of water from the river for the City's drinking water supply. 

Taking Action

In 2014, SELC and Harpeth River Watershed Association (HRWA) took legal action against three sewage treatment plants along the Harpeth River for ongoing permit violations and excessive sewage discharge in violation of the Clean Water Act. As a result, Harpeth Wastewater Cooperative and Cartwright Creek sewage treatment plants agreed to join a multi-stakeholder effort to restore the health of the Harpeth River. These utilities committed to expanding water quality monitoring in the river, developing a pollution management plan, and joining a diverse stakeholder group to work cooperatively on improving water quality. 

In 2016, SELC and HRWA successfully reached a settlement with the City of Franklin. In addition to new protections and monitoring for sewage discharges, part of the settlement agreement is a comprehensive study focusing on the entire Harpeth River watershed, the first such study in Tennessee. This landmark effort, in which SELC is one of the participants, is assessing the health and the risks to the Harpeth River and its tributaries to ensure the river meets water quality standards moving forward. 

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