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Making the Grade

Urban Waters Report Card to Help Tennessee Waterways

by Élan Lloyd. Photography by Shawn Poynter.

Part of the task of improving the water quality of urban streams in Tennessee means establishing a tool to communicate clearly to the public, and public officials, improvements made from the implementation of municipal stormwater programs.

Professor John Schwartz, director of the Tennessee Water Resources Research Center, is working with several municipal separate storm sewer systems (MS4s) across Tennessee to develop this tool, an Urban Water Report Card. The MS4s contributing to this collective effort include Chattanooga, Memphis, and Nashville Metro, along with Hamilton, Knox, and Shelby counties.

The working group developing the report card also includes professionals from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and the Tennessee Stormwater Association. Supporting the project are researchers from UT, the UT Institute of Agriculture, and other state academic institutions.

Schwartz recently described the project’s goals in a lecture for the Energy and Environment Forum at UT’s Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy.

“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, with a suite of indicator parameters to what we’re all familiar with from our schooling: an ABCDF scale,” Schwartz said.

Simply put, an F stream is very degraded, like a concrete-lined stream, while an A stream is a stream with unimpaired near-natural conditions meeting the state’s water quality standards.

Stormwater programs require both the public and private sectors to spend considerable funding on projects including green infrastructure, stream restoration, and stormwater control measures. 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 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 improves 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 storm control measures and stream restoration projects should be implemented within watersheds to achieve the greatest benefits with the least cost.