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Will the Wolf Survive?

A new plan aims to preserve the Wolf River ecosystem -- and Memphis water.

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The first encouraging environmental news of 2004 comes via some unlikely bedfellows: local, state, and federal governments, plus the Army Corps of Engineers, the Chickasaw Basin Authority, and the Wolf River Conservancy.

On January 14th, county mayor A C Wharton led the ceremonial sign-in necessary to begin a project that has been in the works for decades: the Wolf River Ecosystem Restoration Project, one of only two such projects in the U.S. This summer, the corps will oversee shoring up the Wolf River and its tributaries on a nine-mile stretch between Houston Levee and Collierville-Arlington roads. A 2,000-acre buffer zone along the riverbanks will become off-limits to development, gaining hiking and biking trails, at least six access roads, and three boat ramps instead.

An aerial map of the Wolf River's curves was on display at the ceremony and showed a narrow greenbelt hemmed in by brown squares of cleared land. More than just high-dollar real estate, the view represented priceless wetland habitat and a re-charge area for the aquifer that supplies Memphis with its drinking water. But "prior improvements and commercial mining" have compromised the river's delicate system, according to corps findings. The pace of development in the area compounds "erosion and draining of valuable wetland and riparian habitat areas."

Gary Bridgman, president of the Wolf River Conservancy, said "a series of rock weirs and water-collection pools will be constructed to prevent 'head-cutting' -- bank collapse -- in places where the river dramatically widens and shifts." The weirs will be constructed at "strategic locations" along the channel.

Memphis' drinking water is renowned -- even studied internationally -- for its purity. But the aquifer remains vulnerable, and everyone has heard the song about what happens when the well runs dry. "They tell me some of our water is 16 years old," said Wharton, explaining that "youth is good, but older drinking water is better. We take for granted the great supply of our water table; we've seen drops of 125 feet."

The rarity of the nearly $10 million project was highlighted in the understatement of the day, made by Colonel Jack Scherer of the corps: "There are very few 'new-start' federal projects these days because of competition for federal money," he said. According to data provided by the corps, $1,179,000 is allocated through fiscal year 2004. The federal government's share adds up to $6,350,000 out of the $9,905,000 estimated necessary to complete the project.

Everyone involved is counting on these measures to stem the loss of groundwater and help replenish the aquifer. Keith Kirkland, executive director of the Wolf River Conservancy, said the corrective measures "will literally save the Wolf River." According to the Chickasaw Basin Authority's Charlie Perkins, "We've been preaching about the re-charge area for 20 years. We've got an opportunity to acquire and put this property in permanent trust to protect the future of our water supply." He described the problems as "serious" and lauded similar preservation efforts in Fayette County, where the re-charge area extends. Mayor Wharton pointed out that the protected greenspace "equals Shelby Farms in significance of acreage" and will adjoin Collierville's Johnson Park.

"Not only are we going to preserve habitat," noted Colonel Scherer of the Corps of Engineers, "we're preserving access so people can discover the Wolf River." Roads created during the earth-moving process will be turned over to the county to begin a trail network, with a continuous trail planned for the north side. According to project manager Carol Jones, there will be some asphalt involved -- how much, she's not sure. Five of the 22 planned weirs and related access roads are funded through the initial contract.

Acknowledging the many people who worked together in support of the Wolf River Ecosystem Restoration Project, Mayor Wharton called for "orderly, sustainable growth" as opposed to the "erosion and dissipation" of natural resources that are held in trust for the next generation.

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