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Nashville Scene The River of Life

Strange bedfellows unite to guard the Cumberland River watershed

By Michael Sims

MAY 8, 2000:  The Cumberland River is so much a part of the landscape of Middle Tennessee that sometimes you don't even notice it's there. Yet the odds are good that you glimpse it every day. In downtown Nashville or in rural Sumner County, at Adelphia or at the Percy Priest Dam, the river forms the backdrop for business, recreation, and tourism.

But the Cumberland River is more than just a backdrop. It forms the heart of the vast natural community that is the Central Basin. The settlers who built the village that grew into Nashville were drawn to the river's wealth of natural resources. Not for nothing did the ancients make rivers into symbols of strength and nourishment. The "river of life" is not a stale metaphor. It is a fact.

Like all rivers, our own has humble beginnings. In southeastern Kentucky, near Harlan in Lechter County, the Clover and Poor Forks join forces and form the Cumberland River. From there, the Cumberland wanders lazily southwest to visit Nashville. In Middle Tennessee, it changes its mind, turns northwest, returns to Kentucky, and flows into the Ohio River near Smithland. In the winding course of these 700 miles, the Cumberland River drains a watershed of an impressive 18,000 square miles. Tennessee claims within its borders 300 miles of the river and 11,000 square miles of its watershed. More than 2 million people live in this area.

A watershed is the land along a channel that drains water, sediment, and dissolved materials of all sorts toward some common point. Watersheds vary from a few acres around a woodland brook to the huge percentage of the United States that falls within the Mississippi River's.

Scientists consider watersheds to be one of nature's essential communities. And across the United States, there's a growing awareness of the interdependence of natural forces. Wind and water, and therefore the pollutants they transport, are not subject to the imaginary lines human beings draw on maps. We organize ourselves into counties and states, but valleys and rivers don't care who claims jurisdiction over them.

A 4-year-old Nashville-based organization called the Cumberland River Compact is devoting considerable time and energy to encouraging Tennesseans and Kentuckians to think of themselves as living not only in Gallatin or Somerset or the United States, but within the Cumberland River Watershed. Not strictly a conservation organization, the Compact is an education and advocacy network. The Compact has been surprisingly successful at spreading the word because of its commitment to a fairly new approach in conservation--networking and dialogue instead of denunciation and legislation. What a concept.

Riverfront Park downtown is a good place to think about the history of Nashville and the Cumberland River. Fort Nashboro, which is actually a New Deal reconstruction a few hundred yards from the original site, perches on the banks to remind us how Nashville started. Nearby, the remnants of Warehouse Row record a later phase in the city's story, when steamboats could unload goods only a few yards down the bank from their warehouses. Both testify to the role of the river in Nashville's history--first as path of exploration, later as highway for commerce.

Ann Toplovich met me beside the Carousel in Riverfront Park. She is a tall, attractive woman with an impressive store of information on tap in her brain. She was trained as an archaeologist and has also worked for the Tennessee Environmental Council, but she is now the executive director of the Tennessee Historical Society. Her husband works for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, and they own a riverside farm, so she knows environmental issues from different points of view.

"The riverfront has changed dramatically in the last 30 years," Toplovich says, pointing. "It was still very much a working waterfront in the 1950s and even the early 1960s."

The Cumberland River has been changing since just after the Civil War. The Army Corps of Engineers began work on it in the 1870s and 1880s. The first lock and dam was started in 1890, to "improve" the Harpeth shoals, where low water kept steamboats from reaching Nashville. Steamboats required only a depth of 6 feet to navigate. Therefore, the Corps' goal was to guarantee at least a 6-foot-deep channel all the way from the mouth of the Cumberland at Smithland, Ky., up to what was considered the furthest navigable reach, which was Burnside, Ky., just up river from Celina, Tenn.

"Today, along the Cumberland, there's a struggle over control of the resource," Toplovich explains. "You've got industrial activity that wants to use the water. There's the issue of agriculture, and how much [farms] should be regulated as far as what runs off from the fields into the river. There are issues of who gets to use the water from the river. Franklin, obviously, would benefit if they could pull water directly from the Cumberland instead of depending on the Harpeth River. So there's a great deal of tension as to who's going to be able to say what happens to the resources in the Cumberland River Basin."

This tension, Toplovich points out, is nothing new. Before the English and the French fought over this naturally rich and enticing area, Indian groups battled for the same power. The Shawnee established a claim to the region in the 1700s, but the Chickasaw and Cherokee chased them to the Ohio region.

"It's a new leaf that there are actually people who are concerned about how to conserve it," Toplovich says. "For literally thousands of years, people saw nature as something evil that had to be tamed. You know, Jesus encountered the devil when he was in the wilderness." She laughs. "One of the ironies of the current Cumberland River Compact's name is that the original Cumberland Compact in the 1700s was primarily a way of legally dividing up the land along the Cumberland River to exploit the natural resources. Interest in the river has come full circle."

The riverfront, as it appeared in 1879.

In the summer of 1996, a man named Vic Scoggins swam the Cumberland's entire 700 miles to draw attention to the amount of pollution and trash in the river. He swam for two months accompanied by a boat with a banner reading, "Save the Cumberland." Not content with relying on TV stations and newspapers, Scoggins filmed much of his arduous journey to preserve his own record. He showed the videotape to conservation organizations and other groups.

Six months later, a man named Bill Forrester mentioned the Scoggins videotape while he was tending bar at a party at the home of Nashvillian Elizabeth Queener. Forrester asked a simple question "What are we going to do about the river?" The next morning, he joined Queener and her friend, Shirley Caldwell-Patterson, for breakfast. And the Cumberland River Compact was born.

About 65 people showed up for the initial public meeting, at the First Amendment Center. They sat in a circle to symbolize equality of views.

Forrester and Caldwell-Patterson are still members. The board also includes such people as Berdelle Campbell, with the League of Women Voters; Jack Hooper, with Tennessee Wine and Spirits; Phil Armor, with the Greater Nashville Regional Council; and Bill Gary Jr., a Kentuckian who owns the Green Turtle Bay Marina at Land Between the Lakes.

Forrester and other board members label Caldwell-Patterson as the major force behind the Compact. Caldwell-Patterson herself explains that the organization's methods since the first meeting have grown out of each individual's passion for the river. "Everybody who has stayed with this thing feels like it's sort of their baby," she says. "I think that's the only way that it could succeed, because that means that it doesn't depend on any one or two people or on a clique. The people have a lot of experience, and they're self-starters. They can go on and do whatever they figure they need to do."

Not surprisingly, there have been disputes over strategy. Some people strongly disagreed with the growing consensus that, to be most effective, the Compact had to have a non-adversarial approach to conservation issues.

"I've been at this business for a long time," Caldwell-Patterson adds, "and I know that, for myself, when being confrontational I've never been able to get anything done." She worked with the Tennessee Environmental Council since its inception, and was treasurer for 17 years. She has a simple philosophy: "I'm a fly-fisherman and a backpacker, and I have spent a lot of time in the backcountry. What I'm really doing now is I'm paying my debt."

The people involved with the Cumberland River Compact are as diverse as the ecosystem they're coming together to discuss. For example, the Compact maintains a Water Quality Advisory Committee to provide technical expertise. Advisors include the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, the Department of Agriculture's Non-Point-Source Pollution program, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, Nashville's Metro Water Department, a private environmental design consultant, and such Kentucky organizations as the state's Division of Water. This committee is the first on which state conservation people in Tennessee and Kentucky have worked together in such a way.

But there is equal diversity among the organization's board members. Founding member Bill Forrester, for example, is a private investigator and bartender. "I wear several hats," Forrester laughs. "As private investigators, my sister and I have been in business for over 10 years. We still do the child-custody cases, insurance cases--that pays the bills--but one of our interests has always been environmental issues. Neighborhood groups would say, 'What is this stuff that so-and-so is hauling over here?' I might go out and take pictures and get license numbers and things like that."

Forrester also stands out among conservationists because he is black. Frequently board meetings and membership meetings of conservation groups across the country are a sea of white faces. Many minority activists consider conservation the least urgent social issue on the agenda and deliberately leave it to middle-class white people with more time on their hands.

To correct this imbalance of representation, Forrester approaches minority communities on behalf of conservation issues. Frequently it's an uphill battle. "I've talked to a lot of people, but there are so many other issues that come into play. When you say, 'Hey, do you realize what kind of devastation is taking place on the river?' they're like, 'What in the hell are you talking about? That river's gonna be there; it's not gonna move.'"

Forrester isn't the only minority activist who found himself siding with the goals of the Cumberland River Compact. So did Toye Heape, executive director of the Tennessee Commission of Indian Affairs. Heape's own background is Cherokee.

"Dealing with the rivers," Heape says, "is a very important aspect for Native American people. Having a good environment to live in plays an important part in a lot of the cultural and religious aspects. That was a very big issue back in the '80s when they dammed up the Tennessee River and flooded the Cherokee ancestral capitol. The closest related thing that goes on here like that is that we have a lot of archaeological sites, a lot of burial grounds, along the Cumberland River. For example, when the Cheatham Dam was put in, it raised the level of the river. And the actions of the dam contribute to erosion on the riverbanks. We have a lot of places where that erosion is causing these sites to wash away. A lot of them are burial grounds, and the graves are washing into the river."

Pete Kopcsak is tall, outdoorsy-looking, and gray-bearded. As we drive along the river, he explains that before he joined the board of directors of the Cumberland River Compact, he wrestled with environmental issues from the other side of the table.

"I was in the tow-boating business for 20 years," he explains simply. This is a slight understatement; Kopcsak was president and CEO of Ingram Materials Co., which dredges sand and barges commercial freight on the Cumberland, Tennessee, and other rivers. After living on his own large boat for six years, Kopcsak retired in 1993.

He remembers, "All we had were adversarial relationships with almost all the governmental agencies and other organizations relating to the environment, particularly to the river. So we spent a lot of time and lawsuits and lobbying money. I'm sure with all the barge companies it runs into millions of dollars, not counting the man-hours. And as far as I could see, the bottom line in terms of improvement to the Cumberland River was zero."

Kopcsak sighs. "The instant we walked into the room, we were the bad guy. After a while you finally took that stance, because you didn't have any choice. But in 20 years, I had my office down here on the Cumberland River, right across from downtown Nashville, I never once had someone come in to ask what we could all do together to enhance the water quality of the Cumberland."

Kopcsak knows the Cumberland as bargeman, co-owner of a boat-building company, recreational boater, and lifelong lover of rivers. He lived for six years on his boat at Rock Harbor Marina. Then, in early 1993, he and his new wife took the same boat on a year-long honeymoon that led from Nashville to Montreal, the Chesapeake area and the rest of the East Coast, Key West, New Orleans, and up the Mississippi back to Nashville.

During this trip, Kopcsak got to see many river systems in various stages of impairment. He returned to the Cumberland with what he calls a better perspective. "A lot of the places you go, people still can't eat the fish, can't swim. In the St. Lawrence Seaway, for example, the whales are getting cancer from pollutants. When we were there, the Mayor of Quebec was hoping he could swim in the river in another three years. By comparison, it appears that what damage that has been done to the Cumberland River is manageable and reparable."

When people ask about the water quality of the Cumberland River, Kopcsak emphasizes that the question is more complex than it sounds because the river is so long and so varied. Kopcsak points out that, while there are still some black-hatted villains out there, most of the major conservation issues still facing the Cumberland River come around to individual responsibility.

"When the Clean Water Act was passed, point discharges--pipes from factories and other places--came under stringent controls. When they went through the country and cleaned up all those pipes there was a significant improvement in water quality. The problem is that the next issue is non-point discharges, which is what runs off of my yard, your yard, parking lots, highways, and construction sites. The biggest problem in the Cumberland Watershed," he adds, "is siltation--dirt."

As land is developed, it no longer absorbs rain as it once did. We cover the world with impervious surfaces, from parking lots to highways. With no way to follow its natural path into the ground, runoff gathers force and carries siltation into streams. There are pollutants riding along with the dirt. Then, as the siltation enters a reservoir, it settles quickly and becomes a perennial pollutant.

About silt's influence on water quality, Kopcsak asks, "Can you drink dirt? Yes, but how much dirt do you want to drink?" After dealing with water quality experts for four years, and trying to translate officialese into real-world dialogue, the Compact emphasizes that for most people water quality can be described with the terms swimmable and fishable.

"If you treated non-point discharges the way we did pipes," Kopcsak says, "you'd go out and fine everybody who had a little bit of dirt washing off their property. You'd be fining everybody in the country. So the question is, how do you get your hands around the major water quality issue--siltation--today? I think it's going to be primarily through education, as we as individuals begin to treat our yards and parking lots and highways and farms differently."

In 1996 , Bill Scoggins swam the entire length of the Cumberland River to draw attention to its pollution

Here's an example of how modern network-based conservation works, as demonstrated by the Cumberland River Compact. After the formation of the Compact, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation contracted with the Greater Nashville Regional Council, which contracted with the Compact, to bring together a cross-section of citizens and organizations from across the watershed.

In particular, the Compact was supposed to gather information about TMDLs, the Total Maximum Daily Loads of pollutants allowed into, in this case, the Harpeth River, which flows into the Cumberland. The EPA requires monitoring of TMDLs, and sometimes revises the levels. As development booms, monitoring TMDLs will help diminish the degradation of a natural community that so often accompanies construction of a human community.

Compact members went to the Corps of Engineers, which produced detailed maps of the region. They took the maps to TDEC, where the problem areas were designated in color. These maps then accompanied Compact members to the public meetings on the Harpeth Watershed. Attendees could see where they live and spot the locations of threats to the natural environment, both for now and for the future.

Before the first public meetings on the status of the watershed, Compact members visited Dickson, Franklin, Fairview, and elsewhere, to talk to politicians, business people, and farmers. They alerted them of the upcoming meeting and asked for names of people to invite. As a result, the first meeting drew 70 people from all walks of life. From the first step, the two-way educational process had begun. If attendees wanted information from TDEC or the Corps of Engineers, the Compact built the next meeting around those goals.

One result of the Harpeth Watershed work is a new brochure, the first in a long line planned by the Compact. In accordance with the Federal Clean Water Act of 1987, each state assesses water quality and submits reports, which Congress gave the catchy name "305(b) Reports." They are the official mechanism for documenting advances and reversals in the overall health of streams, rivers, lakes, and drinking water.

In Tennessee, the Water Quality Control Act of 1977 directed the Department of Environment and Conservation's Division of Water Pollution Control to prepare technical reports on the levels of pollutants and other problems in streams and rivers. The most recent 305(b) explains criteria, methods, and many fine-print results. However, it is a technical document with tables of "Hypereutrophic Lakes" and graphs of "Ocoee River Copper Levels." These are crucial statistics, but they are not exactly user-friendly.

One of the Compact's goals has been to translate the arcane data of the state's 305(b) report into real-world terms comprehensible to the average homeowner or fisherman. The Compact's handsome brochure is the first such translation. It addresses the creeks and rivers in the Harpeth River Watershed. (In time, the Compact will create similar brochures for every one of the 14 sub-watersheds in the Cumberland Watershed.) Among its clear and well-illustrated explanations, for example, are ones for impaired streams, which are shown on maps and listed in tables. If you look up Otter Creek, you will read, among other things, that there is considerable silt, that stream habitats have been altered by land development, and that there has been a loss of natural streamside vegetation.

A fisherman reading this entry could safely infer that, although fish that required pristine waters might not be available, at least there were no significant amounts of heavy metals or other toxins. Taken together, these wetland biographies will add up to a portrait of the whole region's water quality and overall health.

Videotape of Bill Scoggins' swim prompted Bill Forrester and others to form the Cumberland River Compact.

It's a sunny late-April morning, and Margo Farnsworth is showing me where the Cumberland River really begins. Not a point on a map, not the convergence of two creeks in Kentucky, but the hidden away places in an average woodland where rainwater gathers to form a stream.

We're in a no-visitors part of Radnor Lake. Birds are riotously loud. Sunlight slants through already leafy trees and glistens on wet ground. A fit 40-year-old with brownish-blond curls and a quick grin, Farnsworth is dressed in rubber boots, jeans, and a T-shirt bearing the portrait of a colorful frog.

Formerly a naturalist with Warner Parks, and currently the director of the Cumberland River Compact, Farnsworth is helping conduct a census of small mammals at Radnor. The census runs for a year. One of its activities involves metal Havahart traps smaller than shoe boxes, which are placed in likely spots and checked twice a day for a week out of every month.

These kinds of hands-on projects go on quietly all around us. Scientists count animals and plants, check erosion rates on stream banks, measure rainfall, sort out quantities of chemicals in rivers, determine rates at which silt falls from moving water. The figures add up in tiny increments. Yet these close-up snapshots of information, so painstakingly acquired, are the first steps in our larger picture of how the world works.

Farnsworth insists that such information must be translated for non-specialists. "I forget who said, 'I speak in the idiom,' " she says. "But that's real important for a watershed association to do, I think--to speak to the farmers as farmers, to speak to the urban dwellers as urban dwellers, to speak to business people as business people. That's why the Compact has tried to get such a diverse board, and why we're working to get such a diverse membership."

Farnsworth checks a trap, releases a worried deer mouse, and makes notes on her clipboard. She indicates the wet trail and shallow temporary pools around us. "The fact that this is not a parking lot, that this is covered with weeds and grass and brush and scrub--it's slowing the water down. This is a big part of keeping our water cycle healthy."

She points out how the Radnor Lake wetlands serve as a microcosm of the way the water cycle works in nature. The intermittent streams that flood in spring spill their waters across low areas. Dense vegetation slows the stream's movement and also stores the moisture, so that it will still be available when higher areas have dried. The woodland dwellers will still have a place to turn to for water and food.

We come upon a storybook-perfect gurgling brook. Farnsworth says, "Look how clearly that water is running. And that is because of this shoreline vegetation here. It slows the water down, it catches the sediment that's on its way to the creek, and that keeps the creek cleaner. Now when you do away with all of this, or when you build or farm right up to the edge, then there's none of this to catch the sediment. When you start getting sediment, then you start upsetting the balance in the river."

Balance is the key word. Nature doesn't draw sharp lines between its processes and activities; everything is interdependent. It's helpful to remember that land and water have long been thought of as the flesh and blood of the world. Like the human body, the earth requires a circulatory system. The earth's water cycle works like the body's network of blood vessels. It transports nutrients and removes waste, renewing the body and keeping it alive. Like capillaries growing into tiny veins and arteries, then growing into ever larger vessels, brooks empty into creeks and creeks into rivers.

This process is happening all around us. The intermittent streams that flood the low-lying areas of the Radnor property feed into Otter Creek. First the creek flows into Radnor's two lakes, then onward to the Little Harpeth River, which in turn is a tributary of the Harpeth River. The Harpeth flows into the Cumberland River, which flows through Land Between the Lakes and into the Ohio River. The Ohio flows into the Mississippi, which flows into the Gulf of Mexico, which seamlessly fades into the part of the worldwide ocean that, for convenience, we call the Atlantic. Science has proven what mythologies and religions have always claimed--that everything is connected.

"Somewhere along the way," Margo Farnsworth points out as she packs up her equipment, "the water may be picked up in the evaporation process and may fall in Minnesota." She grins. "Or we drink it and it becomes part of us."

You can reach the Cumberland River Compact at 837-1151 or via their Web site.

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