What’s a degraded aquatic ecosystem worth? What’s a fish worth?
Dead fish. This smelly proposition mixed with raw sewage was offered up to us in South Chickamauga Creek near Shallowford Road on Aug. 14. For the next two days, downstream over two miles, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) collected 5,854 fish that had succumbed to lack of oxygen in their water. More went uncollected. The deaths were caused by 13.68 million gallons of untreated sewage overflowing from Friar Branch Pump Station. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation has issued a notice of violation. But that’s no help to the thousands of dead creek inhabitants.
How could this happen? As Strother Martin said in the movie Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is...failure to communicate.” According to Alice Cannella, Director of Waste Resources Division (Moccasin Bend Waste Treatment Plant), the switch that should have told the pump to turn on when the sewage level gets too high in the pipe did not send the message. Hence, sewage backup flowed out around the base of an elevated manhole and into the creek. This is the very same creek that feeds into the Tennessee River at the Riverpark just upstream from the drinking water intakes for Tennessee American Water Company. The sewage flowed into the creek for 27 hours. Once discovered, it was a quick manual fix.
In 2013, EPA and Tennessee Clean Water Network entered into a three-year consent decree with Chattanooga, requiring significant reduction, preferably elimination, of sanitary sewer overflows, plus major upgrades of the sewer system, upgrades to Moccasin Bend Wastewater Treatment Plant and operational audits. South Chickamauga Creek area sewers fall under this consent decree. This $250 million project came with a hefty fine that could have been avoided if the city had not ignored fixes for more than a decade. This latest overflow clearly violates the consent decree—and the Federal Clean Water Act. Because there is a consent decree, the fine is likely to be a measly $350, although TWRA will charge for fish restitution. What’s a fish worth? What’s a degraded aquatic ecosystem worth?
Twenty-seven hours went by before a quick repair stopped the flow! Canoeists alerted the authorities.Why didn’t those supposed to keep watch not see trouble for so long? The pump station is remotely monitored, but this should have been immediately known. Either the alarm didn’t go off—or no one was paying attention. The consent decree requires establishment of procedures for pump station preventive maintenance. It also requires procedures for routine operations with standard inspection schedules and a plan for emergency operations including location(s) of portable pumping equipment. What happened?
South Chickamauga Creek boasts a large variety of fish species including the famous snail darter. There were 23 species of killed fish, ranging in size from two-inch small fry to 20 pound adults. The endangered Chickamauga Crayfish lives in the creek, not to mention other macroinvertebrates, mussels, insects, birds and wildlife. Kayakers and canoeists make good use of the canoe launches now in place. Many enjoy greenway walks, biking, birding, and fishing. However, neither fish nor fishers enjoy sewage. While overflows are uncommon, whiffs of sewer in South Chickamauga Creek are not. It is likely that old pipes are leaking, as water testing done by South Chickamauga Creek Greenway Alliance in the Harrison Pike area would indicate.
Things to remember:
Sewage is not good for fish.
Sewer pipes work better when they don’t leak.
Prompt attention to stormwater and sewage infrastructure as outlined in the consent decree is an important investment for nature and drinking water.
Healthy ecosystems are essential for sustainable living.
Be vigilant. Take appropriate action to protect water quality. We can start with River Rescue on Oct. 4.