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Down by the River: The Past, Present and Future of the Cumberland

Nashville has big plans for the Cumberland River. It’s also one of the state’s ‘impaired’ waterways.

Fourteen years ago, environmentalists and Metro councilmembers stripped down to their bathing suits for a publicity stunt.

The pod completed a short swim across the Cumberland River, staging the event at Riverfront Park. Officially, the swim celebrated the city’s progress reducing waste overflows, a blight that continues to plague Nashville’s convoluted sewer system. More broadly, the dip was an attempt to destigmatize the river.

For the past 200 years — the span in which Nashville has had modern waterworks — the Cumberland has been Nashville’s foundational natural resource, as well as its drain. With billion-dollar projects now slated for both sides of the river, the prospect of additional territory for commercial development has supported a push to “activate,” “re-engage” or “turn towards” the Cumberland, a vision full of boat commutes and riverside pools. At the same time, the river is still trying to outrun its past.

It’s not that the Cumberland is literally full of shit. (Things were far worse a few decades ago.) It’s that sewage still finds a way to get in — enough to keep the downtown bend and almost all of its Davidson County tributaries on the state’s 303(d) list, a register for Tennessee’s “impaired and threatened” waterways.

The Cumberland enters Tennessee from Kentucky in Clay County, near Celina. It runs blue — the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation’s code for passable water quality — until it hits Woodland Street a few hundred miles later. Nashville’s riverfront section of the Cumberland is known officially as the Cheatham Reservoir because it’s upstream of the Cheatham Dam, one of 10 dams managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the Cumberland and its direct tributaries. The federal government rolled out an extensive program of river control in Tennessee in the decades following the Great Depression, building dams and flooding reservoirs across the state with the Tennessee Valley Authority as its flagship. Ever since, the river could better be understood as a series of reservoirs flowing at different speeds. The Army Corps directs barge traffic and regulates the river level via various locks and dams.

Nashville’s riverfront bend is known even more technically as TN05130202-001-3000. Metro Water pulls its 90 million gallons a day from two spots upriver — the K.R. Harrington and Omohundro water treatment plants. Harrington is near McGavock High School and Two Rivers Park — the latter so-called because it’s where the Stones River, which flows out of Percy Priest Dam, feeds the Cumberland. You can spot Omohundro, a cathedral-like red-brick outpost, across the river from Shelby Bottoms.


Omohundro Water Treatment Plant

These plants clean river water before introducing it to the city’s thousands of miles of pipes, which stretch out to 212,000 homes and businesses, a customer base that’s increased almost 25 percent in the past 15 years. Three massive wastewater treatment plants — Central, Dry Creek and Whites Creek — are Metro Water’s kidneys, cleaning sewage, groundwater and greywater before returning it to the Cumberland. Unlike the critically overdrawn Colorado River — and unlike in California, where there’s a near-constant megadrought — the Cumberland provides every day.

The real problems happen when it rains.

Nashville’s water infrastructure is a vast circulatory system of mishmashed sewers and drains, treatment plants, equalization facilities, pumps, mains and reservoirs, a huge web that has expanded unevenly as the city has grown and technology has advanced.

In 1823, the growing settlement, then relying on carting water from several area springs, hired one of its first private consultants, who tried and failed to modernize a water supply system. A decade later, Nashville completed its first public water system, financed by a wealthy Philadelphian. The brick-and-clay system was built by 12 enslaved Black masons, 10 of whom were sold to pay down the city’s debt after the project was completed. The city kept two of these people, their names so far lost to history, in bondage until the Civil War, presumably relying on their expertise to help operate city infrastructure. From the day it opened its first waterworks in 1833 — complete with ceremonial cannon fire and downtown parade, recalls John Wooldridge in his 1890 History of Nashville, Tenn. — the city has relied on the Cumberland.

The city’s water and sewage network slowly expanded from downtown as the city grew. Cholera outbreaks in the 1880s prompted the modern, underground sewer system Nashville has today, meant to get runoff out of the streets and separate waste water from the water supply. Nashville’s topographical unevenness means there are all sorts of plumbing nooks and crannies, where underground networks meet hills and basins to create vulnerabilities that have become more apparent as lines get taxed with more people and more water.

“We have these legacy issues where we know now, from science, that that wasn’t the right thing to do,” says Mekayle Houghton, executive director of the Cumberland River Compact, a nonprofit entirely dedicated to the Cumberland watershed and thousands of miles of tributaries. “But how to fix it, whether you want to allocate the budget to fix it when you’ve got all these problems, those are the decisions that leaders are making.


An oil pipeline stretches across Browns Creek

“It’s beautiful to think that the city is trying to treat the river as something more than a waste conduit, which is how rivers have been treated for years and years and years,” says Houghton. “The more people that get on the river, the more pressure the city will feel to clean up the river.”

In 2006, after “water surged from the floor drains, shower drain, and through the back door” at a Midtown dentist’s office, the office sued Metro, testifying that the “water contained fecal matter based on its stench and the debris left in the parking lot.” A back-and-forth continued for 10 years, settling in 2016 after several more unsanitary backups. At issue was a Metro water hookup in which a 12-inch pipe fed a 108-inch combined sewer. When it rained enough, the 108-inch sewer fed the 12-inch pipe.

A similar story played out on Blair Boulevard, where raw sewage backups seeped through showers, sinks and toilets, leaving neighbors to fend for themselves after heavy rains. Metro Water addressed that hotspot in 2021. Residents across the city frequently report sewage leaks to the city and state, which regulates Tennessee waterways.

In East Nashville, heavy rain backs up the stormwater drain in front of The Lipstick Lounge at Woodland and 14th, reliably jumping the curb and flooding the bar multiple times a year. Sewer separation for the neighborhood is planned for June 2028. In North Nashville, District 21 Councilmember Brandon Taylor recently heard from constituents about raw sewage pooling at a multifamily housing complex. Rehabilitation for 193,000 linear feet of pipes and lines near Hadley Park is scheduled for completion by 2026.

The practice of cobbling together sewer lines and stormwater drains in cities across the country — a preferred plumbing design last century — has become this century’s headache. Following the Clean Water Act in 1972, the federal government started paying close attention to wastewater, mandating that municipalities eliminate raw sewage overflows that were finding their way into ponds, creeks, streams and rivers. For Nashville, this meant a massive, expensive, extensive overhaul. Three decades later, the Environmental Protection Agency determined that Nashville wasn’t making enough progress and filed a consent decree that now governs the city’s sewer rehabilitation.

Eliminating overflows is an elaborate game of Whac-A-Mole that requires extensive street surgery across the six overflow basins that cover the urban core and East Nashville: Kerrigan (West Nashville), Schrader (North), Driftwood (Napier), Boscobel (Lockeland), Benedict & Crutcher (Edgefield), and Washington (the rest of East Nashville, up to Inglewood). Each one is like a natural sink with a drain into the Cumberland. Kerrigan and Washington, the biggest by area, empty downtown by the Jefferson Street Bridge.

“In 1990, when we started work under a state order to improve our conditions on our sewer system, we had 32 combined sewer discharge points,” says Ron Taylor, the engineer who oversees Metro Water’s Clean Water Nashville program. “Since then, we’ve eliminated all but six of those points. For the area upstream of downtown — Nashville to Shelby Park — we’ve eliminated discharges unless there’s a huge rainfall, so we’re opening it up for recreation, hopefully compatible with all those improvements Planning is talking about for the East Bank.”

According to Taylor, the whole project will wrap up by 2031.

Runaway sewage is the chief culprit for why, exactly, the Cumberland keeps testing positive for intestinally destructive strands of E. coli, the infamous gut bacteria found in fecal matter. Since beginning its overflow abatement effort in earnest in the 1990s, Nashville has drastically reduced sewage runoff, but still reports tens of million gallons of sewage overflows that make their way into the Cumberland, either directly or via tributaries like Dry Creek, Mill Creek and Browns Creek. According to Metro Water spokesperson Sonia Allman, progress is limited by personnel, design capacity, sequential planning requirements and, of course, money. 

“Our waterways are compromised during heavy rainfalls,” Allman tells the Scene. “It is a significant undertaking the city has taken on. It’s definitely something that needs to be addressed. It is a long-term, extensive project that we’ve been working on and will continue to work on.”

Next to a proposed $2.2 billion new Titans stadium, Clean Water Nashville is the city’s priciest project. The 2023 Capital Improvements Budget lists the project at $1.24 billion, but Metro Water estimates the total cost at around $2 billion, funded by the “Sewer Infrastructure Replacement Fee” surcharge on your water bill. Water’s only financial commitment to Metro is a $4 million payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT), obligated by the Metro Council in the 1990s to back debt for the Titans’ first stadium.

Beyond E. coli and sewer overflows, general runoff from all across Davidson County finds its way downtown. The Cumberland and its tributaries form a natural, sophisticated and efficient drain for a pristine watershed populated by a delicate balance of flora and fauna. Undisturbed areas like Tennessee State University’s wetlands off Ed Temple Boulevard, currently eyed as a candidate for a potential MLB stadium, are still far better at handling stormwater and preserving the Cumberland than anything humans have designed.

Before colonization by white settlers, the river and its tributaries were hunting grounds and transportation routes for Indigenous people, dotted by Shawnee settlements. As Nashville grew and industry developed, residents created their own filter on top of the watershed, sealed by asphalt, littered with Styrofoam and stuffed with gravel, sand, oil, petrochemicals, plastics and every other environmental affront that fuels modern life. Complaints about illegal or unregulated industrial runoff in Davidson County that are currently open with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation cite auto repair shops, oil and gas companies, metal fabricators, chemical manufacturers, and roadside dumping. In addition to sewer overflows, TN05130202-001-3000’s only other tag is simply “MUNICIPAL (URBANIZED HIGH DENSITY AREA)” — in other words, the Cumberland is a city’s river.



The Colorado River bisects Austin, Texas, and locals dip at Barton Springs, a slow-flowing tributary pool near downtown. Tourists paddle around on rented kayaks surrounded by a cityscape on both sides. The Charles River, which separates Boston from Cambridge (take a second to imagine if East Nashville had its own council, zoning jurisdiction and school system), hosts almost 2,000 boats and a couple hundred-thousand fans at its annual regatta, the country’s premier rowing event. Like a professional team in 1996 or a top-tier convention center in 2008, a recreational riverfront overflowing with people has landed on Nashville’s wish list.

River entrepreneurship has already begun to take hold on the Cumberland, a small but growing niche inside the lucrative downtown tourist economy. Kayaks and paddle boats are go-to offerings for day adventures, though the industry is somewhat hindered by a lack of launch points — a very specific problem that Metro’s river activation has pledged it will fix. Actually getting in the water isn’t yet mainstream, but some of the people who know the most about the Cumberland, like Houghton and Peter Westerholm, feel comfortable taking a dip.

“I’ll jump in while I’m canoeing and, granted, I’ll always take a shower when I get home,” Westerholm tells the Scene. Back in 2008, Westerholm joined the group of river boosters for their swim across the Cumberland, a year before he was elected to the council representing East Nashville’s District 6. “But I’ve taken my kids out there for a swim, with a life jacket of course. Sure, if there’s been a big rain, it’s probably not a good idea to swim that next day or two. But I still have all my toes, I still have all my fingers and I don’t have any superpowers.”


Cumberland River

Up near Opryland, the General Jackson offers a kitschy riverboat experience nearly every day — so iconic that it earned a spot in Metro Planning’s renderings of development planned for the river’s East Bank.

The Cumberland is also a working river. Barges shuttle heavy industrial commodities like coal, fuel, sand, construction materials and gravel, many working for hometown Ingram Industries. Cargill, CEMEX and Citgo have industrial sites near where the river’s barge terminals and railroad crossings intersect. Tech giant Oracle’s billion-dollar corporate campus, planned for the industrial East Bank, signals a shift for the Cumberland, from industrial logistics to tech workers. The city’s own massive plan to redevelop the bank fits the pivot, with Mayor John Cooper coordinating across departments toward a developed riverfront like the ones in Austin, Boston and Chattanooga.

“The interior bend flows faster than the exterior, so it cut away at the downtown side, forming that bluff,” Harriett Brooks tells the Scene. Brooks, along with other Metro planners, has been laser-focused on the massive “Imagine East Bank” project, a comprehensive rollout of potential area redesign. “On the inside, it flows slower, depositing the silt and sand on the East Bank. That’s why it’s level and a floodplain, and why industry developed there.”

Metro’s East Bank strategy relies on an ambitious civil engineering plan to “lay back” the river, cutting away at the bank to add a graded slope. This is one of the recommendations from outside consultants hired to recommend measures to mitigate the site’s flood risk.

“Laying back the bank needs significant modeling and work with the Army Corps — we’re talking about removing land that someone can potentially develop on,” says Anna Grider, Metro Planning’s East Bank project manager. “We still need to look into laying back the bank, how much and at what grade. There’s still many, many steps of study to be done.”

The Tennessean helped drive the media hype train with a feature in January headlined “Nashville’s next chapter is being written on the banks of the Cumberland,” sourced by commercial real estate developers and the mayor himself. After a bumpy and expensive land acquisition process secured the necessary parcels, Wharf Park, Metro’s proposed location for a city boathouse, will soon enter a third phase of community input after nearly three years of planning.

Metro has teased a boathouse at Wharf Park for the Nashville Rowing Club, a young nonprofit that offers after-school competitive rowing opportunities. The sport is a fast track to college scholarships and often associated with New England prep schools and Ivy League athletics departments. 

“We’ve been working with the city for a long time to make that a community-based setup, really the last five years,” says Cory Sanderson, Nashville Rowing Club’s executive director. Nashville Rowing Club is trying to expand competitive programs with a specific focus on accessibility for public school students. Right now, the club rows on Percy Priest Lake and would help run programs out of a Metro boathouse. Though the club has grown steadily in the past few years, it’s not clear why elevating the sport has become a city priority.



Developing around the river forces a certain humility. Last week’s East Bank stadium committee discussed the financial implications of backing the city’s debt with a floodplain that could be completely incapacitated if the Cumberland got angry like it did in 2010.

Next month, like it does every quarter, the city will report how many millions of gallons of sewage it discharged in July, August and September. While the prospect of lucrative real estate continues to be a guiding light, the river forces the city up against practical and natural constraints — rain, mostly, and all the shit that might come with it. 

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