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Securing a Better Tomorrow with Water Quality Education

By Nichole Stevens 

Housed in the Institute for a Secure and Sustainable Environment, the Tennessee Water Resources Research Center (TNWRRC) is a federally designated state research center. Its primary mission is to support research and promote training in water resource management areas, both at the student and professional level.


School board water management students and Knox County Schools Superintendent Jim McIntyre.

Ruth Anne Hanahan works with education and outreach at TNWRRC, using programs like Adopt-A-Watershed (AAW), a service-learning program for middle and high school students. With the support of the AmeriCorps Program, community partners, and trained teachers, students conduct on-the-ground projects that improve the health of their school’s watershed.

The AAW program, which Hanahan conducts on behalf of the Knox County Stormwater Program and the Water Quality Forum, is the largest and most active of its kind in the entire Southeast. To date, over 125,000 students have gone through the program.

“We’ve actually seen students that started in middle school in this program and they come through the University of Tennessee and they’re interest in the science and the environment was the result of their years in the AAW program,” said Tim Gangaware, assistant director of TNWRRC.

A watershed is an area of land that drains to a body of water like a stream, river or wetland. These bodies of water supply people with drinking water; are sources of water for agriculture, manufacturing and recreation; and provide habitat to numerous plants and animals.

Watersheds are also “nested,” meaning one is located within another. For example, the First Creek Watershed in Knoxville drains into the Tennessee River Watershed which drains to the Ohio River Watershed that then becomes part of the Mississippi Watershed which encompasses half the United States. In other words, what we do in our local watersheds impacts not only our community, but those downstream, even to the Gulf of Mexico.

The AAW curriculum is focused on hands-on learning. Working side by side with professionals, the students apply strategies that help to address local nonpoint source pollutant impacts. These may range from installing rain barrels and rain gardens to removing invasive plants along stream corridors and replacing them with native ones.

In addition to school-based programs, the Center also reaches out to educate and partner with citizens across the state. For example, it partners with UT Extension in a program called Tennessee Smart Yards that is based on nine sustainable landscape principles. A community-based Adopt-A-Stream Program involves local partners to conduct highly effective initiatives ranging from River Rescue, a river and creek clean up that involves a 1,000 plus volunteers to Families in the Creek, an event that provides parents and their children with a Saturday of exploration in a local creek.

“Some of the most effective programs are the ones we have initiated locally with partnership involvement,” said Gangaware.

The TNWRRC for the past two decades has focused on Tennessee’s water issues by funding and promoting research in watershed science across multiple UT disciplines and by providing opportunities for students and faculty to test research in the field. Most of the nation’s waters are still classified as impaired. Impaired means waters that do not fully support their intended uses. Intended uses include being fishable and swimmable, the criteria most often used by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) to describe stream impairments.

Roy Arthur, a UT certified project manager, works in the development and implementation of watershed initiatives in Knox County and East Tennessee. One of Arthur’s responsibilities is grant writing with one award from the Tennessee Department of Agriculture totaling close to $1,000,000 for the Beaver Creek Watershed located in North Knox County. Labeled a targeted watershed by both TDEC and the Environmental Protection Agency, the Beaver Creek project has supported over 40 UT thesis and dissertation studies on topics such as innovative stream restoration techniques, sediment impact studies and pollutant trading scenarios.

Rain gardens,

Rain gardens, such as these in Knoxville, Tenn., can alleviate the negative impacts of stormwater runoff on local waterways. Photo by A. Ludwig, courtesy UTIA.

“A statistically valid 1998 survey of Beaver Creek conducted by UT found that over 40 percent of residents in Beaver Creek wanted to be involved in helping clean up the creek but did not know how to get involved,” said Arthur. TNWRRC has responded by providing a range of opportunities for Beaver Creek citizens to become involved in addressing their watershed’s issues.

Another major initiative of TNWRRC has been the development and implementation of an Erosion Prevention Sediment Control (EPSC) program on behalf of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. Tim Gangaware, associate director of TWRRC, has spearheaded the EPSC program using UT expertise in both its creation and implementation across the state. Since 2003 over 20,000 professionals in the development sector have been certified through the EPSC program.

The most recent TWRRC initiative is in green infrastructure techniques that promote stormwater control by using infiltration, evapotranspiration, and capture and reuse.

TNWRRC has worked with partners both inside and outside UT to construct demonstration projects such as rain gardens, bio-retention ponds, and cisterns. UT researchers are using the projects to determine their efficiency in controlling stormwater. Gangaware recently played a key role in leading a UT effort on behalf of TDEC to write a green infrastructure manual. It is accompanied by a calculator tool developed by UT Bioengineering and Soil Science researchers that will be used by engineering consultants to meet new Tennessee green infrastructure stormwater management requirements.

When asked what making a difference means, Hanahan responded “it means showing others through our programming how we are all interconnected in this world; how every stewardship action we take, whether large or small, can cumulatively over time make a difference.”

“Watershed initiatives make a difference by involving residents in environmental stewardship in their own backyards. They learn that everyone lives downstream from someone and that their actions can affect others either positively or negatively,” said Arthur.

“Making a difference means engagement of community members in the private and business sector,” said Gangaware. “It means improving quality of life in our communities.”

The Tennessee Water Resources Research Center was nominated as a Partnership that Makes a Difference. Click here to read more.