Tennessee Aquarium, Partners Unveil Vision And Tools For Region’s Fresh Water Future

Friday, May 5, 2017 - by Casey Phillips
6,000 gallon cistern and constructed wetlands at the TN Aquarium Conservation Institute
6,000 gallon cistern and constructed wetlands at the TN Aquarium Conservation Institute

When it comes to natural resources, the Southeast is one of the wealthiest places on Earth, not to mention home to a nearly unrivaled diversity of aquatic life. 

To ensure this ecological wealth is protected as the region continues to grow, the Thrive Regional Partnership and the Southeast Tennessee Development District have partnered with the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute to unveil a regional vision and tools that show area leadership how to treat natural resources as opportunities rather than obstacles. On Tuesday, elected leaders, developers and other decision makers will visit the Conservation Institute’s flagship facility on the banks of the Tennessee River to hear presentations from both organizations. 

The event marks the launch of A Watershed Moment, a full-color printed map and vision, compiled from public input during the Thrive 2055 planning initiative, as well as Hydro LIT, a “water quality playbook” that was created on behalf of the Development District by graduate students in the College of Architecture and Design at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Both projects were funded by the Lyndhurst Foundation. 

Attendees to the event will be shown the benefit to approaching community development with a long view that emphasizes proactively minimizing ecological impact, says Dr. Anna George, the Conservation Institute’s director and the Aquarium’s vice president of conservation science and education. 

“One major takeaway for this event will be how important advance planning is, whether we work in conservation or just enjoy being outdoors,” Dr. George says. “Whether it’s a weekend camping with friends or a design for urban spaces, having a conversation in advance about our expectations, needs, and challenges will help us create a result with joint ownership.” 

During their visit, guests will receive printed copies of the Watershed Moment map and digital copies of Hydro LIT. The more than 200 page resource guide suggests ways Southeastern developers can preserve water quality and natural features while continuing to stimulate the responsible growth of the region’s communities. 

As they crafted the proposals that became Hydro LIT, the UTK students spoke directly to residents, companies and government agencies throughout the region. This on-the-ground research helped them to better understand the challenges the Southeast faces in growing in a sustainably water-friendly fashion. As a result, the proposals are realistically achievable on a regional scale, says Brad Collett, an assistant professor in UT’s School of Landscape Architecture. 

“I think the experience brought the students face to face with the real challenges and the circumstances that would lead to water quality threats in the future,” he says. “That type of direct research as a way of grounding their proposals was one of the biggest benefits to them and really elevated the credibility of the proposals they developed.” 

Using Hydro LIT as a guide, developers will be able to find ways to work with the environment, rather than against it, says Chuck Hammonds, the Development District’s assistant executive director. 

“After this event, we hope that folks will look at development in a different light. We hope that they will realize that the best approach to development isn’t to scrape it all off the ground and start over,” Mr. Hammonds says. “Sometimes, if you incorporate those natural features into a development, it not only protects that environment but also enhances your appreciation of that feature.” 

A Watershed Moment is a visually compelling, double-sided map of a geographic region including the Tennessee River watershed and its tributaries. One side of the map highlights water features, historic sites, forests, trails and other natural resources across 16 counties in Southeast Tennessee, North Alabama and North Georgia. The other side details collaborative “vision” statements from the people of the region and broad action plans for the protection and promotion of these resources during the next several decades. 

This survey of the region’s abundance of natural and historic outdoor features represents a kind of “bucket list” of sites for local residents and visitors to experience. Despite featuring more than 45 locations, the final selections were only a fraction of the sites initially proposed for inclusion by several dozen conservation and outdoor recreation professionals who collaborated with Thrive during its creation. 

“I think that a lot of us take a region’s natural treasures for granted,” says Ruthie Thompson, Thrive’s communication and outreach manager. “The hope for us is that this map, this vision, will first bring hyper awareness to people in the region of what we have, how precious and rare it is and how vital it is that, as we grow, we prioritize what we want to save because once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”

During their visit, attendees will be given a tour of the Conservation Institute’s flagship research facility, which was completed last October. The building is anticipated to be LEED-certified and was built to “walk the talk” with a design emphasizing clean water and energy efficiency and a construction process that minimized the building’s impact on the environment. During their tour, attendees will be shown some of the site’s sustainable design features, including a rainwater catchment system, landscaping that reintroduced native plants and terrain sculpting that helped rejuvenate a nearby wetland. 

Recently, the Conservation Institute received high praise during the Building Recognition in Chattanooga Awards, which recognize projects completed by Chattanooga-based firms that are prime examples of construction innovation, engineering and design. The Conservation Institute received four awards: People’s Choice for Sustainable Project of the Year, People’s Choice and Judge’s Choice in Best Commercial Design and People’s Choice for Collaborative Building Team of the Year. 

For a forum discussing ways to design future communities that will benefit from a harmonious existence with nature, the Conservation Institute was an obvious partner and the ideal venue, Ms. Thompson says. 

“Anna [Dr. George] and her crew are doing such incredible education and outreach, and they are under-utilized at this point,” she says. “This event had to happen at the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute. It just had to.” 

The Hydro LIT guidebook is available for download online: http://www.tnaqua.org/protect-freshwater/take-action/

The Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute is a leader in freshwater science
The Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute is a leader in freshwater science

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