Vast areas of Knoxville and Knox County south of the Tennessee River have often been referred to as an urban wilderness, an area where people can enjoy nature just a short distance from downtown.
Now, a collaboration of researchers from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, are helping to restore Baker Creek, which has been flagged by the US Environmental Protection Agency for its high rates of pathogens, nitrates and nitrites, and habitat alterations.
The Baker Creek Watershed is the focus of the project, which brings together members of UT's Tickle College of Engineering, the Department of Geography, and the College of Social Work in collaboration with students from South-Doyle Middle School and Montgomery Village.
Together, their goal is to build stakeholder collaboration and collect data that will helpful in improving stream quality by reducing nitrate and nitrite pollution.
"A plan to address pathogens and habitat alterations in the watershed has been developed through aspects of Clean Water Act enforcement, but no one has really studied the nutrient contamination in Baker Creek in depth or come up with a plan to improve it," said Jon Hathaway, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at UT.
"Urban runoff is going to be one likely suspect in our study, so having people from the community and schools around the area is a vital aspect of our mission."
For South-Doyle Middle School, the chance to take part in the program with UT helps merge learning with real world experience, a combination far more important than just the visibility gained.
"I am excited our students have the opportunity to be involved with the Baker Creek initiative and to work alongside professors from the University of Tennessee," said Andrew Brown, executive principal of South-Doyle Middle School. "This project offers both educational and civic opportunities for our students.
"The hands-on learning experience with the watershed in their own community will foster knowledge and develop civic responsibility."
Hathaway said that he hopes the data and the impact of community involvement will assist both the City of Knoxville and the state's Department of Environment and Conservation in developing strategies to help the location.
Along with Hathaway, assistant professors Robert Washington-Allen, Yingkui Li, and Madhuri Sharma—all of the geography department—and assistant professor Lisa Reyes Mason of social work are also key parts of the project.
"Engaging young people from Montgomery Village also helps meet a community need for safe, healthy activities for youth," said Mason.
The team also will develop ways to illustrate water quality problems to the community so that there is a better understanding of both the issues at hand and what can be done to solve them.
"Working with a diverse team really helps in addressing the problem across multiple levels, from community engagement, to building STEM knowledge in students, to actually collecting water quality samples to better understand the pollution issues," said Hathaway.
Hathaway said demonstrating how the health of the area is impacted by runoff and outside sources can help build and sustain momentum to ensure the health of Baker Creek for years to come.