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Tennessee Clean
Water Network

123A S. Gay St.
Knoxville, TN 37902

Office: 865.522.7007
Fax: 865.525.4988

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is Tennessee's biggest water pollution problem and why?
  • Who is in charge of protecting our rivers and streams in Tennessee?
  • How do I know if my local stream or lake is safe?
  • How does your work actually make a difference in the quality of Tennessee's rivers and streams?
  • What can I do at home/work to responsibly participate in clean water efforts?
  • Can you provide a glossary of frequently used terms on your website?
  • I call TDEC, local stormwater enforcement and even the EPA and nothing gets done about water pollution. What can I do?
  • TDEC says my cows are the problem, not the development above me. Are they right?
  • How do I know if my local stream or lake is safe?
  • What is Tennessee's biggest water pollution problem and why?

    The most common causes of pollution in rivers and streams are mud (sediment/silt), habitat changes to accommodate development, viruses and bacteria (pathogens), and nitrogen and phosphorus (nutrients). The main sources of these pollutants are stream changes to accommodate development, agricultural runoff, sewage and stormwater discharge, and construction runoff. The leading causes of pollution in reservoirs and lakes are heavy metals (like zinc and copper), dissolved oxygen (too little or too much), and chemicals like, PCBs, dioxins, and chlordane.

    Who is in charge of protecting our rivers and streams in Tennessee?

    The Clean Water Act amendments of 1972 and the Tennessee Water Quality Control Act of 1977 (Title 69) both regulate the quality of water in the state. They include laws protecting our rivers and streams from pollution and preventing further contamination. The Division of Water Pollution Control of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) is entrusted with protecting the people's right to enjoy clean water. They are responsible for administration of the Tennessee Water Quality Control Act. They oversee all water pollution concerns, issue permits to allow impacts to our waters, conducts water quality monitoring and much more.

    How do I know if my local stream or lake is safe?

    The Clean Water Act (CWA), Section 305(b) (US Congress, 2002) and the Tennessee Water Quality Control Act (Tennessee Secretary of State, 1999) both require a biennial report about the status of water quality in the state. This is known as the 305(b) Report. Also required every two years is the 303(d) Report. The 303(d) List is a compilation of the streams and lakes in Tennessee that are "water quality limited" or are expected to exceed water quality standards in the next two years and need additional pollution controls. Water quality limited streams are those that have one or more properties that violate water quality standards. They are considered impaired by pollution and not fully meeting designated uses. These reports provide an evaluation of the current conditions of our waters, but only about 20% of Tennessee's rivers and streams have been monitored.

    How does your work actually make a difference in the quality of Tennessee's rivers and streams?

    The Tennessee Clean Water Network is the only organization that watches the activities of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, the Water Quality Control Board, state and federal legislation to ensure that they are all complying with current state and federal requirements. We do this by commenting on pollution permits that industry wants from TDEC. Many times permits are changed due to our comments.

    We also monitor enforcement actions and lobby to make them strong enough to deter bad behavior. We help communities facing threats to their clean water resources by helping the with policy questions, helping them prepare for hearings, and helping them attract new members to their issue.

    This directly affects water quality because we are making sure that those that are allowed by law to pollute, can only pollute to the minimum. When polluters destroy water quality we lobby for greater enforcement actions so that the polluter will think twice before polluting. One bad permit and one bad actor can ruin a $10,000,000 property acquisition. It can ruin a river for years. It can ruin public and aquatic health. Now that we have a staff attorney, we are able to do enforcement ourselves through our Clean Water Defense Fund.

    What can I do at home/work to responsibly participate in clean water efforts?

    Better than turning off the tap when you brush your teeth, you can become involved in a movement to protect clean water in your community.

  • Does your community have a local watershed group? Join it and us!
  • Are there residential developments or an industry that is polluting your favorite river or stream? Call us and become a CSI - Conservation Scene Investigator. We will teach you how to monitor sites in your community and how to look for Clean Water Act violations, how to watch permits and comment on them and how to read daily monitoring reports to determine if an industry is violating their pollution limits. It's easier than you think! Call us at 865.522.7007 or email Dana and she'll show you how!
  • Are you concerned about bad legislation? Start a relationship with your local, state and federal representatives. Call them, email them, write them and tell them you want clean water for your children and your children's children. Meet with them when they are in town and tell them how much clean water means to you and that you want to see them vote on protecting clean water. Go to our legislation page and get up to speed with current and federal legislation. If you want coaching, call the office and we'll go over the legislation with you. WE are here for YOU and Tennessee's beautiful rivers and streams! Call us, email us, write us. Get involved and make a difference.
  • Sign up for our enews and keep in touch with events and legislation throughout the year. We send out an email every two weeks, except during the Tennessee legislative session when we send out a water legislation update every week.
  • Can you provide a glossary of frequently used terms on your website?

    Here's a starter:

    Anti degradation: This policy in the Clean Water Act protects rivers and streams from becoming more polluted. The rivers that fall under this category are usually high quality. In the Tennessee Water Quality Standards, which are rules to protect Tennessee's rivers and streams, these rivers are considered "available" or "unavailable" for pollution. We don't like that terminology either.

    Here's how it works:

    Let's say Industry X wants to put more pollution, let's say "zinc" in a river. If the river is not polluted for zinc, they may do so. If the river is polluted for zinc, the industry must perform an economic and social justification for putting more zinc in the river. To do so, they must submit in writing why it is socially and economically justified for the community, not for the industry - that's big distinction - to put more zinc in the river. They must also have public hearings in the area that will be getting the pollution. The point being that the community - YOU - get to have a say as to whether the pollution benefits your community. Sometimes it does - like when you get a new sewage treatment plant - sometimes it doesn't. It up to YOU.

    How you can get involved:

    You can attend these hearings and make your feelings known about this pollution. TDEC takes your comments and then decides whether or not to issue the permit. Sometime TDEC issues the permit and gives Industry all they asked for. Sometimes TDEC alters the permit so that Industry has to make changes to comply. TDEC puts all permits that are pending and approved online. We send out a bi-monthly enewsletter that has these permits listed. To sign up for the enews letter click here.

    Bad legislation in 2009, would have taken away this very useful process. To see how the bad water bills of 2009 fared go here.

    Clean Water Act: This is the federal water law that all states much comply with. The states can have a state water law that is more stringent than the federal law, but they cannot have a weaker water law than the CWA. The CWA relies on public participation. That's why we like it so much. YOU can make a difference. YOU can have a say about decisions that affect the rivers and stream you love. YOU can get involved and we want to help you do so! The federal government delegates their authority to the state. This means that the EPA says to the states, "States, make your own water pollution laws. They must be as strict as ours or stricter!" And the States either do so or decline and allow the EPA to run their programs. In Tennessee, we have a delegated program and our own water law, the Tennessee Water Quality Control Act (TNWQCA).

    How you can get involved:

    In 2009, the Tennessee should be coming out with it's water quality standards and we continue to bother them until they give us a date. They do this every three years. They also evaluate their streams and put them on a list of impaired (polluted) rivers. They do that every two years. TDEC has hearings for those documents. You can look the reports over and if you see something you don't like, you can go to the hearing a comment in writing or verbally, preferably both. Then you can help us watch permits to see if Industry is violating the standards. You can also monitor your rivers and streams and turn in the data to TDEC. Though TDEC will not use the data to list rivers on the impaired waters list or to create standards, they may go out and take some data themselves and agree that the stream should be listed or that the standard needs to be changed. Again, YOU getting involved makes the difference! Call us today and we'll put you to work! 865.522.7007 x100 or email Renee.

    Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) or Too Many Damned Lawyers!

    This part of the CWA which is also in the Tennessee WQCA creates a watershed plan and a cap on pollution. It creates the total maximum daily load a river can take of pollution X. That's the theory. In reality, a lawsuit in the early 2000s created the requirement for hundreds of TMDLs to be done in Tennessee. Unfortunately, there was no money to implement them. The plans were made, but there was no follow up. One of the easiest things to do was to put the caps created by the TMDLs into permits, but that's not happening. So the program has not become the fix-all the environmental community had hoped it would be. There are still some good uses for it. It usually lists all the contributors for pollution and has a plan to fix them. There are no hooks for enforcement, though.

    NPDES - National Pollution Discharge Elimination System -

    This is the permit program we talk about all the time. It is a system designed to ELIMINATE pollution. Unfortunately, it just spreads it around. It is for point sources which means pollution coming out of a pipe. This includes stormwater, but it does NOT include agricultural runoff. Permits are issued by TDEC. They are put out for public notice on their website and you have 30 days from the posting to comment. We comment on many permits and are happy to teach you how to do it too. If you sign up for our enews, we list them as well.

    I call TDEC, local stormwater enforcement and even the EPA and nothing gets done about water pollution. What can I do?

    You can sue the polluter directly or the EPA under the CWA. Remember how we said that YOU are the most important part of the CWA? Well, this is another perk. You can sue the federal government or the polluter directly through section 505 of the CWA. This section allows you to sue for injunctive relief (stop the pollution), make the polluter pay civil penalties and sometimes get a supplemental environmental project that gives money to local environmental organizations to help fix the problem. TCWN has started the Clean Water Legal Defense Fund to do such work. We have a staff attorney. If you think you have a case, give us a call. If you'd like to support the Clean Water Defense Fund, click here. Email Stephanie Matheny or call at 865.522.7007 x102.

    TDEC says my cows are the problem, not the development above me. Are they right?

    Well, it depends on the problem. If your stream is loaded with pathogens and nutrients, it could be your cows. If your stream is loaded with mud it could be your cows too, if they are allowed access to the stream. But TDEC cannot regulate farms. Farms are exempt from the CWA as well as the TNWQCA, so even if your cows are the problem, TDEC can't really do anything about it.

    Currently, there is a move afoot to scare farmers that TDEC is gonna getcha! Do not believe that for one moment. TDEC has neither the will nor the inclination to get anyone, much less farmers. TDEC is complaint driven. They do not look for opportunities to enforce the TN WQCA against anyone, much less the farming community. This is simply a scare perpetrated by the Farm Bureau Federation to keep farmers in the dark about how the CWA and the TNWQCA really work. These laws are in place to protect water for farming, recreation, industry and domestic (homes) use. Farmers don't want to farm with dirty water anymore than they want to drink it.

    Relaxing water quality rules, as the Farm Bureau Federation of Tennessee is working hard to do in the state legislature, actually benefits developers, not farmers. Development is one of the biggest threats to family farms in Tennessee. When water quality laws are relaxed, farms downstream of developments get hit the hardest. To find out more, click here.

    Didn't answer all your questions? Well, send them along to me and I will make sure to answer them here.