Reported By Dennis Ferrier
Anyone who wants to build something in Tennessee with a streams or waterway in their path can buy the stream and destroy it.
Video: Developers Spend Millions To Buy, Destroy Streams
Most streams in Tennessee are for sale, and it is a big business. Developers are spending millions of dollars every year to purchase streams they will destroy.
Tennessee law is clear: It's supposed to be difficult to destroy a stream. Those who want to build on a stream site are first supposed to try to build around the stream. If they can't avoid it, then they're supposed to redirect the stream -- engineer a new, approved path and minimize damage.
If that doesn't work, as a last resort, a person can write a check and destroy the stream. The check goes to repairing a stream somewhere else, but one's company is off the hook.
"The company is no longer liable," said John McFadden of the Tennessee Environmental Council. "Once they write that check, they have no responsibility whatsoever in terms of correcting that stream."
The fee paid to destroy the stream goes to the Tennessee Stream Mitigation Program. Joey Woodard is in charge of finding a stream to restore or replace the stream that the developer destroyed. For every foot of stream restored, a foot of stream is supposed to be replaced.
The Tennessee Stream Mitigation Program began in 2003. So far, developers have paid $36 million to do what they want with a stream; $5 million a year to buy that stream.
"We allow people to go in and develop nature around the buildings and the parking lots and all of that," said McFadden. "What we really need to be doing for a sustainable community is developing our buildings and parks and structures around the natural assets."
There are two justifications for this program: One is that every foot of stream damaged is replaced with a foot of stream.
But that isn't the case.
The law demands that if someone destroys a stream, he or she must replace it somewhere else, foot for foot. The attempt is ambitious, but the program falls short.
"It's about 70 percent of the impacts that come to our program. So we're doing pretty well in that regard," said Woodard.
The other idea is that the restored stream is supposed to be in the same area to improve the water quality in the area where it was compromised.
"It's easy to regard as a black hole," Woodard said. "Eighty percent have been mitigated for within 30 miles of the impact."
To people like Dorie Bolze of the Harpeth Watershed Association, it misses the mark. There is net loss, and the new projects are too far away.
"We want to have projects that improve water quality near the activity," Bolze said. "Well, you can't (improve water quality) if the mitigation is done five streams over."
Some said they wonder if the price for a stream is too much of a bargain. Right now, someone must pay $200 for every foot of stream they destroy.
McFadden said he would like to see the fee go up to $500 a foot.
"That would also help to make the development community think a little bit more about how they develop sites as opposed to just writing the check," McFadden said.
"There's a sentiment out there mitigation should be punitive ... when in fact we're simply trying to offset that impact," said Woodard.
Either way, Tennessee environmentalists said drinking water remains at risk.
"Ultimately, you know, mitigation is about cutting a check so you can destroy a natural resource," said Bolze. "It's not working."
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