CLEVELAND, Tenn. — The plan seemed a bit far-fetched: Relocate four streams and create a wetland area in a matter of months on 121 acres of former farmland.
But there was a lot at stake.
If the streams — tributaries forming the headwaters of the Little Chatata Creek, which eventually flow to the Hiwassee and Tennessee rivers — couldn’t be dealt with, 1,700 jobs at Cleveland’s largest employer might be lost.
“It was a deal maker or breaker for us,” said Doug Berry, vice president of the Economic Development Industrial Board of Bradley County and Cleveland.
Bradley County’s oldest operating industry, Whirlpool, had decided to combine its three older plants into a single modern one and needed a new site, Berry said.
“When your biggest employer comes to that decision, you know you have to move fast,” Berry said. “The company never threatened to leave, but 25 years in the industrial development business told me that if we couldn’t address their needs, they’d have no choice but to leave here.”
In October, work began on Whirlpool’s $120 million, 1-million-square-foot plant near the intersection of Benton Pike and Michigan Avenue.
Last week, just before workers prepared to open the third engineered stream on the site, hundreds of Alabama hogsuckers, a species of fish, were spawning in one of the “new” streams completed earlier this year.
“It’s great to see. It’s an indicator that what we’ve done is working as it should,” said Bill Phillips, the president of Envision Ecology and the design engineer for the stream moves.
Berry said Whirlpool — which will pay for the work when it is done — was “very happy to hear about the fish spawning.”
Whirlpool officials did not respond to requests for comment.
The last of the four streams is expected to be completed later this year.
Moving a stream is fairly easy to do badly, said Dick Urban, the head of Water Pollution Control in the Chattanooga field office of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.
For instance, look at Stringer’s Branch where it parallels Dayton Boulevard in Red Bank, he said.
“It’s been straightened, covered, armored with concrete. They’ve thrown everything but the book at it. There’s no place to put the water,” Urban said.
When that happens, problems and costs add up over time with storm flooding, habitat loss, degraded water quality and degraded property values, he said.
On the Whirlpool site, Phillips put to work a complicated formula of hydrological, geological and site-specific engineering data to map a new path for the streams on the property’s edge.
“Moving them to the perimeter of the property gives us a corridor. It creates a lot of greenspace around a site, and wildlife can migrate around them,” Phillips said.
Contractors used an earthmover to sculpt a zigzag pattern that mimics nature’s meanders and allows the water to move slowly. They varied depths slightly and added river rocks to create riffles and pools needed for wildlife and to keep water clean.
They lined the banks with topsoil and seeded them with native grasses. Later they will add bushes and trees.
Phillips said the process costs $150 to $200 a foot. When the project is completed, they will have built nearly a mile of zigzagging stream around the plant site.
“The streams up here at Whirlpool are designed to overflow their banks early [during a rainfall] because we’re also creating wetlands,” Phillips said. He knows they’re working because downpours last month pelted the site with 9 inches of water in a short time.
“There’s a rule that when you put in one of these, you get gullywashers,” he said with a laugh.
In all, about 4 acres of wetlands were filled, 6.8 acres were created, 1.7 acres were enhanced and 3.2 acres were preserved.
About 600 feet of stream was lost, but about twice that will be restored in another section of Little Chatata Creek, and another acre of wetlands will be built or improved somewhere else, according to permitting data.
Phillips also designed streams on the Volkswagen site at Enterprise South industrial park. That effort was the first of its kind in the region, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently called it a model for industry.
“We’ve been fortunate in that every stream we’ve moved so far was in bad shape,” Phillips said.
“At VW, the site had been the [Volunteer Army] Ammunition Plant and they had put culverts in everything.
“This site [Whirlpool] was a cattle farm, and the cows had just trampled the streams. They were very muddy and had E. coli problems. We’re raising the environmental value very high compared to what was there.”
Phillips and his company also are engineering a stream move at the Amazon sites in Bradley County. There, a culvert under Interstate 75 was causing the stream banks to erode, Phillips said.
“Now the moved stream is on bedrock, and bedrock is creating its own riffles and pools. It’s beautiful,” Phillips said.
Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...