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The Wolf Returns

The future looks better for Memphis' second-largest river.

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A cardinal's bright call can be heard above the distant roar of traffic on the Interstate 240 bridge spanning the river downstream. An abundance of fish and birds dart around our canoe, and the nearly pristine river banks are filled with trees and dotted with animal tracks. The bridge seems a surreal intrusion into this verdant strip of nature.

Make no mistake -- dramatically rechannelled and used as a sewer and dump for decades -- the Wolf River is every bit an urban stream. But through the passage of time and the efforts of the Wolf River Conservancy, the stream is slowly healing and soon will be one of Memphis' top ecological and recreational resources. In three to five years, conservancy executive director Larry Smith says, a mountain biker will be able to ride from the mouth of the Wolf downtown for 22 miles through forests and wetlands along the river to Houston Levee Road. Along the way are four "doorway" parks -- Kennedy, Gragg, Douglas, and Shelby Farms -- where residents have access to the greenbelt and river.

Greenbelts are a national trend, Smith says, because cities are beginning to see rivers as a resource rather than just a dumping ground. Not only can the Wolf be used for canoeing and fishing, but its greenbelt is home to almost every species of West Tennessee wildlife and is an important factor in recharging the drinking-water aquifers Memphians hold so dear.

"We are so far ahead of so many cities because the land is bought and the trails and bridges are already in place," Smith says. "We just need a sponsoring agency like public works or the park commission to jump behind us, because it's all public land."

Signs, maps, and minor repairs to the trail are also needed, probably requiring a full-time project director until the trail is up and running, Smith says. Stretching 250 feet on both sides of the 100-foot-wide river, the forested greenbelt blocks out the city and is home to deer, foxes, bobcats, coyotes, minks, beavers, and all kinds of native birds and fish.

During our four-hour trip from Shelby Farms to the Warford Street Bridge, only the sound of overhead bridge traffic broke the serenity of birdcalls as our paddles moved steadily through the muddy brown water.

To the untrained eye, the Wolf seems untouched by development. Trees and grass line the river's banks, marred only by the occasional beer can or junked car. In spots the earth has been trampled bare by a host of animals drinking from the river. But all the trees and greenery have regrown since the river and forest were razed to build a new straighter and deeper channel, Smith says. The river used to twist and turn through the city on its floodplain, but a new channel was finished in 1962 to accommodate more floodwater and open up the floodplains to development.

"[The present channel is] like the straight piece cutting through the "S" of the dollar sign," Smith says. As a result of channelization, the wetlands and meanders along the floodplain have dried up, but he says the river is fortunate in that it has been allowed to heal rather than being rechannelized.

Smith is chest-deep in the river, searching the bottom for freshwater mussels. The growing population of mussels is a sign of a healthy ecosystem and good water quality, he says. The river's animal and plant populations were hurt by the channelization and pollution but through time have reestablished themselves.

Though the Wolf receives treated sewage and runoff from several industries, Smith has no concerns about swimming in the river, though the water should not be consumed. Also, the Memphis Health Department has issued a ban on eating anything caught downstream from the Germantown Road Bridge. But Smith says almost all freshwater fish are contaminated with some kind of pesticide.

All the industries that dump into the Wolf have to be issued a permit, he says, with only a certain amount of effluence allowed. The Wolf is lucky, Smith says, because only nine industries are allowed to dump into the river. Among cities that already have a greenbelt the Wolf is one of the cleanest urban rivers in the country, he says. "They are considering basing permits on the TMDL -- 'the total maximum daily limit' [of pollutants] -- for each river, but right now permits are issued in a vacuum," Smith says.

To most Memphians the Wolf is little more than a brown flash seen from the window of a speeding car, but Smith has been trapping and canoeing on this river since he was old enough to ride a bicycle. He still spends much of his time here, checking on the health of animal populations and making sure polluters are within their permit limits.

On visits throughout the country, Smith has seen how cities are slowly becoming aware of the importance of fresh water: how New Orleans gets its drinking water from the heavily polluted Mississippi; how Orlando has just determined sewage water must now be treated for drinking. "In ten years water is going to be more valuable than oil," Smith predicts. It's a hard concept to grasp in Memphis, where rivers and streams criss-cross the landscape and a giant aquifer holds some of the best drinking water in the world.

Smith frequently uses the Wolf as an outdoor classroom to lecture school children (and whoever else will listen) on the important linkage of Memphis drinking water to the Wolf River. While many of our rivers, including the Mississippi, are heavily polluted, and development in eastern Shelby County threatens our aquifers, government officials don't seem to care, Smith says.

But the situation isn't hopeless. The Wolf River is a good example of how time -- and citizen involvement -- can rebuild a natural resource.

"It's a different river than it was in the 1950s," Smith says. "And in the 1960s it was declared dead. But now it's definitely on the rebound."

You can e-mail Andrew Wilkins at letters@memphisflyer.com.

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