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Middle Tennesseans push to protect the Harpeth River

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A major Tennessee natural resource is in the spotlight as some Middle Tennessee residents push to protect the Harpeth River.

Environmentalists want the City of Franklin to take better care of the Harpeth River by altering what goes into it from the city's sewer plant. Residents say protecting the natural resource can't wait.

You hear the sounds of rushing water, but listen closely because there's more to the Harpeth River's story; its major role in the Civil War's Battle of Franklin, the stories of family fun days, and its unparalleled biodiversity.

The Harpeth has 55 different species of fish in downtown Franklin alone. By comparison, the enormous Colorado River only has about 20 species.

“We live in a very unusual place on this planet," said Dorie Bolze with the Harpeth Conservancy. "It's not really well integrated into our decision making.”

Bolze is referring to a $100 million expansion of Franklin's aging sewer treatment plant the Conservancy says will dump more pollution into the 'river that runs through this city.'

“We have an environmentally endangered river," Franklin resident Mike Vaughn said. "It's stressed. It's on the list."

That list from 'American Rivers' had the Harpeth at number nine, saying about 60 percent of it is impaired.

Franklin Mayor Ken Moore says conservationists are misleading.

“It sounds scary that we're polluting the river," Moore said. "Well, that's far from the truth. We're discharging a highly refined water product out of our plant.”

Conservationists call this output pollution. Franklin calls it nutrients.

“We're referring to nitrogen and phosphorus," Ecologist Dan Fitzgerald said.

However, too much grows too many plants and algae and that chokes out oxygen. Think of it like cinnamon. A little is good. Too much can choke you. Too much phosphorous in Lake Erie and the Okeechobee in Florida have shut down drinking water plants and hurt businesses.

The Conservancy's already taken Franklin to court under the Clean Water Act.

Franklin currently puts about 75 pounds of phosphorus in a day. That’s well below its permitted level of 176 pounds. Yet, Franklin appealed saying if anything its "limits should be higher" even though the Harpeth's been on Tennessee's list of impaired waters for more than a decade.

There's no disputing the samples.

“I would rather see us partner and work the science and not have political games and publicity stunts," said Eric Stuckey, city administrator for Franklin.

Vaughn, who's worked internationally on large environmental wastewater projects, thinks this idyllic small town isn't thinking big enough.

"They don't have to put anything back into the river," Vaughn said.

Neighbors asked Franklin to use a Lystek system instead, calling it the newer, cleaner, cheaper technology some other cities use at potentially half the cost. It converts all of this into fertilizer.

Franklin spent eight months analyzing the new Lystek technology. With input from the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation and the EPA, Franklin decided it "did not feel that the proposed Lystek system was capable" of meeting all its criteria.

According to the city memo, it "would result in significant time delays, add design costs, and jeopardize funding."

“We're following the permitting and the science, and as long as we are doing that why would you want to get in the way of us making upgrades," Stuckey said.

Franklin, a river runs through it and the Harpeth's story, conservationists say, is one worth protecting. Just ask angler Mike Acord.

“You have to go quite a ways to find a really fresh water that you can fish and it's quiet," Acord said. "I'd much rather be doing this than golfing.”

Legislators failed this session to force Franklin to agree to an even lower phosphorus output as a condition of the $100 million state loan to expand the plant. The bill did not advance.

Franklin has conducted an integrated water resource plan it says makes sure the city interacts with the river in a responsible way.

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