Report: Less than half of state streams assessed

By Thomas Wilson

   When monitoring the health of a stream, state environmental officials speak of a natural measure stick equal to any technological test.
   "The bugs never lie," said Paul Davis, director of the Division of Water Pollution Control of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.
   Davis and other TDEC officials answered questions about the state's proposed draft 303(d) List at a public hearing at Sycamore Shoals State Park Monday night. State environmental representatives gather public input from a smattering of meeting attendees that will be submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency next month.
   Davis said a diverse and numerous insect population usually meant a stream had good water quality.
   The 303(d) List is a compilation of the streams and lakes in Tennessee identified as "water quality limited" or are expected to exceed water quality standards in the next two years and need additional pollution controls.
   The draft list identifies waters suitable for total maximum daily load (TMDL) and thermal load calculations. TMDLs are developed to define the levels of pollution control that would be needed for protection of public health, aquatic life, and recreation. The priority ranking reflects the uses to be made of such waters, the severity of pollution, and the feasibility of control strategies.
   The draft list identifies Sinking Creek in western Carter County as a Category 5 stream affected by discharge from Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) and pasture grazing. The stream has not been assessed to rate a TMDL priority, according to the draft list proposal.
   In Johnson County, pasture grazing by livestock put two sections of Roan Creek on the list while a section of Campbell Creek was identified with as a low-priority listing the presence of E. coli bacteria attributed to septic tanks and livestock grazing.
   TDEC reported Shell Creek and the Doe River in Carter County were removed from the 2004 list after water reassessments conducted by the Tennessee Valley Authority in 2001. Both waterways suffered "channelization" in 1998 when massive flooding hit Carter County in the Roan Mountain and Hampton areas. The EPA-mandated Storm Water Program was imposed in two phases under the federal Clean Water Act. The first phase identified a state's largest municipalities while phase two enacted storm water control requirement from smaller MS4s including Elizabethton.
   "We do not have to deal with a severely impacted stream right now, which is good news for us," said Johann Coetzee, the city's deputy director of public works who attended the meeting.
   Davis said testing of chemical presence as well as a thriving ecosystem gave the best indication of a stream's health and if the storm water discharge regulations were working. Water quality limited streams have one or more properties that violate water quality standards. They are considered impaired by pollution and not fully meeting designated uses. The designated uses include fish and aquatic life, recreation, agriculture uses, domestic water supply, irrigation and navigation.
   Once a stream has been placed on the list, it is considered a priority for water quality improvement efforts. These efforts include traditional regulatory approaches such as permit issuance, but also include efforts to control pollution sources that have historically been exempted from regulations, such as certain agricultural and forestry activities.
   The draft list's author, Greg Denton with TDEC in Nashville, said roughly 66 percent of the state's streams fully supported designated uses while 33 percent of streams assessed had some level of impaired quality.
   "We are already doing over 4,000 site assessments each year," he said.
   The list ranks streams in categories 1 through 5. A Category 1 stream meets all designated uses while a Category 5 marks a stream impaired for one or more designated uses. Of the streams assessed for the proposed 2004 list, 16 percent were Category 5 while 13 percent were rated as Category 1.
   Category 3 streams, comprising 49 percent of the state's 61,000 miles of streams, were not assessed by TDEC in the proposed list. Davis said roughly half of all streams were not assessed by TDEC officials usually because of size. He said chemical and biological stream sampling by water pollution control personnel increased fourfold between 1998 and 2003.
   "We get a lot more data now than we did years ago," he said.
   The draft list includes Carter County streams of Campbell Branch, Davis Branch and Gap Branch identified as Category 5 streams with a high priority designation given each as the result of alterations to streamside or vegetation near the waterway.
   The assessment of Tennessee's waters was based on a water quality evaluation that took place during 2003 and early 2004. Water quality data collected at hundreds of streams in Tennessee were compared to existing water quality criteria.
   Denton said the proposed draft list would be submitted to the EPA in August. The EPA should approve the list after the agency's own public input process later this fall.