Tennessean: How one rural county is fighting to save a pristine creek from pollution as Middle Tennessee grows (1/5/2023)

A battle in Hickman County over a wastewater treatment plant reflects the larger issue of environmental conservation as Middle Tennessee rapidly expands.

Key Points:

  • The Water Authority of Dickson County is proposing a new wastewater treatment plant along Lick Creek in Hickman County..
  • Supporters say the project is needed to handle growth in nearby Dickson and Williamson counties and would allow Hickman County to grow and attract business.
  • But residents are worried about wastewater going into a pristine creek and argue they don’t have enough say in the matter.
  • Before the project can receive state approval, a public hearing must take place. No date has been set.

Cecile Allen’s family has owned their farmland on Lick Creek in Hickman County for more than 150 years, harvesting hay and soybeans, and raising cows, pigs and chickens.

Allen, 84, has lived on the property for much of her life, except for the decades when she and her husband John moved to Atlanta to raise their children. The couple happily returned in their later years to retire.

“My father was a small farmer here and he made a good living, as did his father and his father’s father,” she said.

The property, 250 acres in unincorporated Primm Springs an hour west of Nashville, is fed by water from Lick Creek, which Allen said is a lifeblood for the farming community.

“The creek is beautiful and clean, and it fertilizes our crops in the spring if we’re lucky,” she said. “It’s just a wonderful thing.”

Hickman County residents Bucky Knecht, Cecile and John Allen pose for a portrait on the bank of Lick Creek Friday, Dec. 16, 2022 in Primm Springs, Tenn. Hickman County residents are concerned about a proposed plan for the Water Authority of Dickson County to build a wastewater treatment facility in eastern Hickman County that would dump treated wastewater into Lick Creek.

But residents of Hickman County fear their way of life is being threatened by a proposed sewage treatment plant that could eventually discharge up to 12 million gallons a day of wastewater into Lick Creek, raising concerns over possible flooding, contaminated wells, and environmental damage.

Adding to the frustration, they said, is the fact that the majority of treated sewage would be pumped from the much larger and wealthier counties of Dickson and Williamson.

Allen said Hickman residents only learned of the plans after a neighbor in January 2022 spotted a small public notice sign posted on a bridge on Highway 7. 

“We were horrified,” she said. “How can we people of poor old Hickman County fight this?”

A ‘David and Goliath’ battle

It’s a concern shared by small communities and environmentalists across the state as Middle Tennessee sees exponential growth, forcing tough decisions on how to expand infrastructure while preserving the region’s beauty and natural resources.

A sign reading "Save Lick Creek" rests outside a home along Beech Valley Rd. Friday, Dec. 16, 2022 in Primm Springs, Tenn. Hickman County residents are concerned about a proposed plan for the Water Authority of Dickson County to build a wastewater treatment facility in eastern Hickman County that would dump treated wastewater into Lick Creek.

Last year, the 16-county region encompassing Nashville topped 2 million people, with leaders expecting that number to grow to 2.5 million by 2040. 

While it may be good for the economy, environmentalists say the development is straining Tennessee’s more than 60,000 miles of rivers and streams.

A 2022 state water quality report found that nearly 60% of assessed streams and rivers were impared with pollution to some degree, up from 42% in 2012.

Mike Butler, chief executive officer of the Tennessee Wildlife Federation, said state leaders will need to come up with creative solutions to protect waterways as the population expands.

Emerging battle:Tennessee community fights to save their ‘exceptional’ creek

“The economic growth benefits a lot of people, but how do you make sure that it doesn’t ruin what is drawing people here?” he said. “For a starting point, we need to look at regional planning around water resources.”

The issue of conservation vs. development is playing out in Hickman County, where residents have waged what they see as a “David and Goliath” battle to save their own natural resource.

The Water Authority of Dickson County, which has proposed the project, says its three other wastewater treatment plants in Dickson and Williamson counties are all nearing 95% capacity. A plant in east Hickman is critical for population growth over the next two decades and would bring much-needed jobs and economic development to the county, the utility has said.

Hickman has long lagged behind its neighbors in economic development. A rural community, it has one of the state’s highest poverty rates at 16%, according to the U.S. Census bureau.

Its county seat of Centerville has a population of about 3,500 and boasts a bronze statue of native Minnie Pearl in the town square. To the east, its neighbor Williamson is the state’s wealthiest county, while Dickson County to the north is quickly growing. 

The water district, which serves customers in the three counties, said Hickman has been held back by lack of a sewer system.

Water flows along Lick Creek Friday, Dec. 16, 2022 in Primm Springs, Tenn. Hickman County residents are concerned about a proposed plan for the Water Authority of Dickson County to build a wastewater treatment facility in eastern Hickman County that would dump treated wastewater into Lick Creek.

In December, the water district commissioned an economic impact report from Middle Tennessee State University that found a new water reclamation facility in Hickman would create more than 900 jobs from construction and new businesses and $84 million in business revenue from new development.

The water district noted that it has had “informal conversations” with people interested in development south of Interstate 40 if a sewer service becomes available. 

But residents say the development shouldn’t come at a cost to their clean waterways. 

An ‘exceptional’ waterway

Lick Creek flows directly into the Duck River, which has been called the most biodiverse river in North America with more than 200 species of fish, mussels and snails. The creek is also classified as an “exceptional Tennessee waterway” due to the presence of the Coppercheek darter, a small, near-threatened fish found only in the Duck River system.

“This creek is pristine, and we want to keep it that way,” said Rodes Hart, one of the leaders of the group Friends of Lick Creek, which organized early last year to stop the proposal.

Maury County:Commission passes protection measures for development near Duck River

Hart, a Nashville philanthropist who owns property in Hickman, said the creek has supported family farms for generations and that the people here enjoy rural life.

“It’s a way of life that deserves protecting,” he said. “My fear is if some people get their way, there will be rampant development.”

While an exact location for the treatment plant has yet to be determined, the water district said Lick Creek is the best option because of its size as a large tributary. Other options, such as expanding current facilities or building a pipeline under Interstate 40 to the Cumberland River, would be too costly and wouldn’t be enough for future growth, the district has said. 

Long-time Hickman County Commissioner Keith Nash said local leaders were never consulted in the planning process and only learned of the proposal after an application had been submitted to the state. 

“It stunned me to realize how far down the road they had gone in this decision-making process without ever truly going to the group that has authority to speak to the folks here,” he said. “And honestly it hurt. I attend church in Dickson. These are some of the people I go to church with.”

Moreover, Nash said there are no Hickman representatives on the Water Authority of Dickson County’s five-member board of commissioners. Four commissioners are appointed by the Dickson city and county mayors, while a fifth at-large member is chosen by the other commissioners.

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Nash said Hickman residents deserve to make decisions for their own county.

“My biggest concern is the loss of our ability to self-direct our community,” he said. “The ability for us to chart our own future is being wrestled away from us by someone who thinks they know better.”

Hickman County residents John and Cecile Allen walk down to the bank of Lick Creek Friday, Dec. 16, 2022 in Primm Springs, Tenn.  The Allens and Hickman County residents are concerned about a proposed plan for the Water Authority of Dickson County to build a wastewater treatment facility in eastern Hickman County that would dump treated wastewater into Lick Creek.

Bob Rial, mayor of Dickson County, said the water authority over a decade ago stepped in to help the sewer systems in Hickman and the city of Fairview in Williamson County as they struggled with growth. While there are no Hickman representatives, the board takes a regional approach, he said. 

Rial said he isn’t involved in the decision-making for the treatment plant, but believes it would be good for the region as a whole. 

“It’s a benefit for everyone because you want to be able to have clean sewer and water systems in rural areas,” he said. “It’s a necessity for all the growth we’re having in Middle Tennessee.”

Preserving Tennessee’s water quality

As of December, the water district’s permit application was pending approval by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, which oversees permits for pollution discharge into waterways.

The approval process requires a public hearing where opponents can raise concerns. A hearing date has yet to be set.

While the creek is classified as exceptional, the state allows some pollution in these waterways if the proposal can show it’s in the public’s best interest economically or socially. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could review the application, but it does not review all pollution discharge applications, according to the state. 

While the state considers the permit application, the Friends of Lick Creek group said it plans to keep fighting to prevent pollution in its exceptional waterway.

Michael Adams, executive director for the Water Authority of Dickson County, in an email said water quality models for a new treatment plant show that Lick Creek would meet all federal and state standards for pollution discharge.

However, permits do not require testing for “contaminants of emerging concern” like pharmaceuticals and personal care products, which are becoming more frequent in waterways, said Dorene Bolze, president of Harpeth Conservancy, which works to protect Tennessee rivers. 

New film:Williamson twins’ film captures resistance to Lick Creek wastewater facility

And Bolze said there are no studies to show how those types of contaminants could impact aquatic species like the Coppercheek darter.

“We really don’t know how the creek would be affected,” she said. 

Bolze said the population growth has been especially overwhelming for smaller sewage plants in rural areas that discharge wastewater into small waterways. When levels drop in the summertime, many of those streams become almost entirely wastewater, she said.

“Some of these plants are discharging about 4 or 5 million gallons per day, and while that’s a relatively small number, it’s a big deal for small creeks and rivers,” she said. “We’re seeing more demand for highly treated wastewater.”

As the Dickson County Water Authority faces pushback in Hickman, it’s also seeing concern over one of its other treatment plants in the town of White Bluff in Dickson County.

In November, the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a complaint with the Department of Environment and Conservation over a possible bacterial bloom near a treatment plant outfall in Trace Creek. 

Photos submitted in the complaint show slimy green algae growing under water trickling from a drain pipe.  

George Nolan, an attorney for the law center, said it’s a sign of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, which can result from improperly treated sewage discharge. 

The law center, he said, is urging the state to impose stricter pollution limits under the plant’s discharge permit.

Adams in a statement said TDEC conducts regular inspections for all of the water authority’s treatment plants and that the facility in question is in compliance with all state-mandated limits for water quality.

Rich Cochran, a manager with TDEC’s Division of Water Resources, said the facility’s current permit does not have daily pollution limits for nitrogen and phosphorus because Trace Creek is not on the state’s list of impaired waterways. The state will set total maximum daily limits, known as TMDLs, for a pollutant after it is listed as a cause of impairment for a waterway.

Cochran in December said field staff were expected to visit the site for an analysis and the state could modify the facility’s application permit to include limits for nitrogen and phosphorus. 

As small rivers and streams continue to see strain from growth, longtime Hickman residents like Cecile Allen said they hope it won’t happen in their community. 

“They haven’t started anything yet so we think we do have a chance,” she said. “I just hope and pray they can figure out something that isn’t Lick Creek.”

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