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Tennessee Community Fights to Save Their “Exceptional” Creek

PRIMM SPRINGS, Tenn. — Greg Deen and his family have farmed along Lick Creek in Middle Tennessee since shortly after the Civil War. The children of Vange Johnson’s large extended family were baptized in the creek. Bea and Neil Jobe, now in their 80s, no longer grow tobacco irrigated with creek water but still get their drinking water from a nearby well.

Their Hickman County homes and farms lie just beyond Nashville’s sprawling bedroom communities, but the city’s rapid growth is starting to be felt here. In early January, a small sign appeared on the side of the highway stating a utility in the next county planned to use their creek to dump wastewater from a new sewage plant. The utility says the plant is needed to support development and bring jobs. Residents worry the scheme will destroy aquatic life; contaminate wells, springs and crops; and increase flooding.

“In Hickman County, one of the major resources is water — good, clean water,” said Mike Weesner. His 255-acre (103-hectare) horse boarding farm runs along 3/4 miles of Lick Creek. “The fishing is excellent. The water is excellent. I would not be afraid to drink out of it right now,” he said.

A sign posted by opponents to a wastewater treatment plant stands near a highway on March 8, 2022, in Primm Springs, Tenn.  (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

The rural county of just under 25,000 people prides itself on its natural beauty and promotes outdoor tourism, especially fishing and paddling in its rivers and streams. Lick Creek is designated an “exceptional water” of the state, and it flows directly into the Duck River, considered the most biodiverse river in North America.

Water treatment plants primarily remove solid waste and nutrients — like nitrogen and phosphorus — and kill bacteria, but they are generally not designed to remove other potentially harmful substances like chemicals, pharmaceuticals and heavy metals.

The Water Authority of Dickson County already operates three wastewater treatment plants in fast-growing Dickson and Williamson counties, just outside Nashville. Those plants are nearing capacity and the streams they discharge into are “effluent dominated,” so unlikely to be approved for more wastewater, according to an engineering report. A new Hickman plant would discharge up to 12 million gallons a day of wastewater into Lick Creek, which has a low flow of less than 9 million gallons a day. The vast majority of the wastewater would come from surrounding counties.

“This is not an attempt to infuse development. It’s an attempt to use us as a cheap dump,” County Commissioner Austin Page said at a recent community meeting.

The neighbors have banded together to stop the plant under the banner of Friends of Lick Creek. Rodes Hart, one of the leaders, said he thinks the utility hoped to get the project approved before most people were aware of it.

“They wanted to dump it down the poor people of Hickman County’s throats,” Hart said. “It can be extremely difficult to stop something like this once a draft permit is approved.”

The Water Authority of Dickson County did not respond to phone and email messages requesting comment.

Lick Creek winds for miles through a deep hollow of cedar glades and sycamore shoals in the community of Primm Springs. The area was first developed around 1830 as a summer resort with hotels, a dance pavilion and a spa where visitors could enjoy the mineral waters, believed to have curative powers. The valley is filled with small farms. Some go back several generations while others were purchased more recently by wealthy Nashvillians looking to escape the city.

The utility’s engineering report says discussions with community leaders “have been ongoing for several years, and all agree that this project is necessary for the continued growth of the area,” but many local leaders say they were blindsided.

Bea and Neil Jobe pose in their home, which sits near Lick Creek, on March 8, 2022, in Primm Springs, Tenn.  (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

The Hickman County Commission passed a resolution Feb. 28 stating the project was developed with “no input” from residents or commissioners. They have asked the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to delay any permitting for at least six months to allow them time to study the proposal.

At an overflow meeting of the Friends of Lick Creek in late February, TDEC Deputy Commissioner for the Bureau of Environment Greg Young took fire from unhappy residents.

In addition to water quality, some said they were concerned a new sewer line would invite irresponsible development because the county lacks zoning or a long-term development plan. Others worried about the sheer volume of water that would be dumped into the stream, saying periodic flooding already destroys crops and threatens drinking water from wells and springs.

Young said he was “just getting up to speed” on the issue. He promised, “We’re going to be pumping the brakes a little bit to better understand the situation.”

Although opponents are organized and well-funded, they still face an uphill battle. TDEC has already approved a study that found the new plant is the utility’s only feasible alternative to accommodate growth. The alternatives study is a necessary step toward getting approval to degrade the water quality of a stream.

Residents said the study was written to support what the utility had already decided to do. For instance, it did not explore the alternative of returning the treated water to the large Cumberland River, where much of it is drawn from to begin with.

Neil Jobe grew up in neighboring Dickson County on Jones Creek. He saw the water turn “dingy” when Dickson first began using it to discharge wastewater from one of the plants the Water Authority now wants to supplement with the proposed Lick Creek plant.

“I saw the minnows die and the fish die,” he said. “When we moved to this remote place, we thought we were never going to be contaminated again.”

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