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TVA River Neighbors
august 2006


Wetland thrives in downtown Chattanooga

Renaissance Park on the riverfront in Chattanooga is aptly named. It is a showcase of cultural revival and ecological restoration in an area once blighted by urban decay.

  image of chattanooga wetland  

A 1.5-acre constructed wetland in downtown Chattanooga is helping to improve water quality using a unique system of rock shelves and wetland plants.


The abandoned facilities of the former G.E. Roper plant have been replaced by 23 acres of natural, historical, and recreational features. They include a thriving wetland as well as a flooded forest that is home to significant wildlife, a unique feature in an urban setting. A suspended boardwalk provides visitors with an intimate look at this ecological transformation.

“It is the result of unprecedented cooperation,” says Jeff Pfitzer of the RiverCity Company, a nonprofit agency established to help define restoration goals and coordinate their implementation.

The task became known as the 21st Century Waterfront Plan, and participants came from throughout the public and private sectors. The Audubon Society, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and TVA are among the many organizations that collaborated. TVA facilitated the permitting process and helped with the design and execution.

“Our motto is ‘working together works.’ We’ve proved that it does,” Pfitzer says. “If it didn’t, we could not have completed Renaissance Park in 35 months.”

A few finishing touches remain, but all of the park’s 15 features are now open to the public. Interpretive signs are being completed, as well as an outdoor pavilion where a variety of programs will be offered, including environmental education opportunities focused on wetlands and stream restoration.

For many people, observing a wetland will be a first, and many would not expect to find one downtown, says Linda Harris, a water resource specialist with TVA’s Chickamauga-Hiwassee Watershed Team.

“It is a tremendous demonstration of how a natural process can be used to correct the environmental consequences of urban development,” Harris explains.

The wetland collects, improves, and releases water from two sources of urban pollution: stormwater runoff and water from contaminated soils and sewers. Runoff from heavy rains is channeled into the wetland for treatment via pipes that pass through a concrete headwall separating the wetland from Market Street Branch Creek. There is also a valve in the sewer system that diverts water from a waste-containment cell to the wetland. The cell was designed for the environmental restoration effort and primarily contains frit, a by-product of enamel produced by the old G.E. Roper Plant. As water moves from the cell through the wetland, native plants provide filtration.

When water exits the wetland, it flows into the Tennessee River, passing through a 13-acre flooded forest along the way.

“This wet-forest ecosystem is another important environmental link between the land and the water,” says Harris. “Although a wooded area in a floodplain that is regularly inundated may seem like a bad thing, it’s actually good for the native flora and fauna that live there.”

Restoration of the forest started with the selective clearing of nonnative and second-growth woodland to allow native species to thrive again.

“This is an example of how nature can improve water and soil quality,” says Harris. “It also creates a beautiful outdoor space for the public to enjoy.”

For more information, click on the 21st Century Waterfront link at www.rivercitycompany.com.

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