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Birds-eye view of an urban area and a nearby waterway.

Making the Grade: Urban Waters Report Card to Help Tennessee Waterways

Part of the task of improving the water quality of urban waterways in Tennessee means establishing a tool to communicate improvements clearly to the public. CEE Professor John Schwartz, also the director of the Tennessee Water Resources Research Center, is working with several municipal separate storm sewer systems (MS4s) across Tennessee to do just that to help the public and public officials better understand the results of implementation of stormwater management programs.

John Schwartz.

John Schwartz

Stormwater programs require both the public and private sectors to spend considerable funding on various projects including green infrastructure, stream restoration, and stormwater control measures (SCMs). While these projects have improved stream health in the MS4 communities, the water quality of the streams is still considered impaired, so it’s important that the public understand more about the incremental gains achieved.

The Urban Waters Report Card (UWRC) is designed to address this. A statewide effort that pulls together larger MS4 communities in Tennessee, including Chattanooga, Memphis, Nashville Metro, and Hamilton, Knox, and Shelby counties, it will be an assessment tool that can quantify stream health to show incremental gains to the waterways in these areas.

The working group helping to develop the UWRC also includes input from the Tennessee Stormwater Association and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. Researchers from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and other state academic institutions will provide assistance as needed. Schwartz recently detailed the project goals in a lecture at the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy’s Energy and Environment Forum.

“The concept is primarily to develop support for the stormwater programs in the state and to develop a tool that can incrementally grade the quality of the of the streams,” said Schwartz. “And so it will have a list of various indicator parameters that are being developed by the working group and each parameter will have a grading scheme common to what we’re all familiar with from our schooling—ABCDEF.”

Simply put, an “F” stream is very degraded, like a concrete lined stream, while an “A” stream would be a stream with unimpaired natural features, like streams in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The tool will help convey to the public that taxpayer funding for stormwater management programs is improving stream quality. A report card will provide an effective means for public officials and the public at large to see the improvements made to their urban streams.

For example, a stream that improved from a “D” to a “B” is worth recognizing for the gains made, even if it still is not an “A.” The report card tool will also help the MS4s prioritize where SCMs and stream restoration projects should be implemented within watershed to achieve the greatest benefits with the least cost.