The Cumberland River flows past Nissan Stadium in Nashville in October 2016
Nashville's Cumberland River is prone to flooding. Weston Kenney/AP

The growing metro area is full of rivers and creeks that keep spilling over. In order to design a solution, officials will have to bridge the urban-rural divide.

When the remnants of Hurricane Harvey pushed north earlier this month, it rained nine inches in one day in Bordeaux-Whites Creek, a neighborhood in northern Nashville, Tennessee. The creek itself, which winds through a lower-income community, rose 13 feet, prompting officials to order residents to evacuate. Some left their homes, others stayed put. The dangerous event received little fanfare―in this area of the city, flooding is nothing new.

Exacerbated by the effects of climate change, flooding is becoming more intense and common even in inland states like Tennessee. Nashville has been working to mitigate that risk since an historic flood in 2010, when 13 inches fell during a 36-hour period and the Cumberland River crested at 51 feet in downtown. After Harvey blew through Nashville, the call for action is even stronger, leading the mayor to push for a flood wall system to protect the city’s downtown tourist hub.

With a steady influx of new residents and millions of visitors every year, developers are scrambling to keep up with Nashville’s rapid growth. There’s a sense of urgency to protect the city’s growing tourist economy, but many people are worried the flood wall is just a quick fix, leaving out communities in floodplains like Bordeaux-Whites Creek that have struggled to deal with chronic flooding and stormwater problems.

“We have 100 years’ worth of decisions we’re trying to go back and confront, and at the same time with climate change, the predictability of the weather is less certain. We can’t really predict what the consequences are going to be precisely for our city,” says David Briley, vice mayor of Nashville.

The flood that changed the city

“Nashville is a water-rich city,” says Sonia Allman, communications manager at Metro Water Services and a Nashville native. The Cumberland River winds through the city, and hundreds of creeks, wetlands, and streams crisscross middle Tennessee’s hills and valleys. “It’s a true benefit to us, but we are susceptible to flooding―especially flash flooding,” Allman says.

Tennessee’s major cities have warmed by around 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1950, and extreme rainfall events in the Southeast have become more intense. On average, it floods every 10 days in Tennessee, according to Pew Research. When the flash flood struck in 2010, 26 people died in middle Tennessee and western Kentucky. Nearly 11,000 properties in Davidson County, where Nashville is located, were destroyed; the city had $2 billion in private property damage and $120 million in public infrastructure damage.

Opryland Hotel, Grand Ole Opry, and Opry Mills mall were flooded in 2010. (MJ Masotti Jr/Reuters)

Up until the 1980s, Allman says, there were hardly any regulations on how close to waterways people could build homes and businesses, or how high up those strucutres had to be. Nashville has gotten much more progressive in its building codes over time, but after the flood, the city took more direct action, requiring homes to be built four feet above the base flood elevation. The city ramped up flood protection programs and obtained more funding from the federal government to buy out homes in the floodplains rather than spending money to repair and rebuild them after storm events.

To date, the city has bought out 261 homes, demolished them, and turned the lots into green spaces, such as parks, community gardens, and fields. This year, Nashville has its sights on acquiring 89 more homes.

Many of the lower-lying areas are low-income, Allman says. When the homes are bought out, however, the city’s hands are off of it, and it’s up to the residents to find a new place to live―something that’s becoming increasingly difficult in this rapidly growing region.

A good chunk of the people who now live in the Music City weren’t there to witness the devastation of the 2010 flooding. At that time, about 600,000 people lived in Nashville. By 2016, that number had spiked to 660,000―and it’s still climbing. According to census data, from 2015 to 2016, the city grew by 100 people per day. The 14-county Nashville region now has more than 1.8 million people.

Some of these newcomers are applying to build along waterways or in flood plains, or canceling their flood insurance, even though city officials repeatedly notify them about the risks. “People think it’s safe from flooding here―like if you move to Louisiana, okay, it will flood, but in Nashville it doesn’t,” Allman says. “As people are coming and areas change, [flooding education] has to be the constant. We can’t forget and become complacent, because it could happen at any time.”

Finding a comprehensive solution

Local elected officials, nonprofits, businesses, and residents have been working on a comprehensive plan to address flooding in the region. The largest aspect is the mayor’s latest proposal for $125 million flood wall and protection system, which includes a 2,100-foot-long flood wall that would protect the heart of downtown―where some of the worst of the flooding occurred in 2010―and a pumping station that could release water back into the Cumberland River and other waterways in the region, relieving some of the pressure on stormwater infrastructure throughout the city.

Mayor Megan Barry, who was elected in 2015, brought up the project for a vote this month after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas. “This is a critically important piece of infrastructure for the future of Nashville from an economic standpoint and from a cultural and residential perspective,” she says.

But the project has been shot down twice in Metro Council in the last few years, since many members were opposed to spending so much money downtown instead of first addressing chronic flooding in other parts of the city, like Whites Creek. Some residents and experts also worry that the water pumped out of downtown will flood other areas of the city instead, like the popular neighborhood of East Nashville, on the opposite side of the river, or other communities downstream. (Meanwhile, Allman says Metro Water Services has done several studies that show that won’t happen.)

If the council does approve it this year, Barry says it would still be another six months to finish designing the protection system before construction began. If the council votes the plan down, it means back to the drawing board, Briley says. “If we want to have mitigated risk, it’s about a comprehensive decision on how we develop and preserve open space,” he says. “But a persistent commitment to doing that regionally would be just as important in terms of preventing flooding in [the] region as opposed to doing any sort of single construction project.”

Each time a community in the watershed builds a new suburban neighborhood, or adds development properties, or paves a road, it potentially raises the risk of flooding in other parts of the region. Just 30 miles outside Nashville are many rural communities and thousands of acres of farmland―and many of them rely on the Cumberland River. Mitigating development and flood risks in the region requires these communities to work together with the city.

Tackling the problems in these nearby communities and suburbs is just as important as solving issues downtown, Briley says―but it’s a slow process because of the urban-rural divide in Tennessee.

A solution requires communicating the risks of climate change to a diverse array of communities―urban and rural, progressive and conservative―and acknowledging that the answers may look different for various places. For instance, Sumner County, a growing area north of Nashville, has experienced heavy precipitation in the last few years that has led to frequent flooding, says Gwen Griffith, program director for the Cumberland River Compact. Since 2010, Griffith has helped create climate adaptation and resilience courses and plans for rural communities in Sumner County and 38 other rural areas in the U.S. The Cumberland River Compact does risk-assessment studies on communities before working to plan and address climate-change impacts. But because places like Sumner County are so conservative, Griffith says the organization has to be careful about how it sends its message―which means avoiding too much talk of climate change right off the bat.

“We understand that this should not be a political issue, so we don’t approach it as such,” says Griffith. “It’s a risk-management issue, so we don’t feel like it’s necessary to put a climate label on it, which gets [better] responses.”

In Nashville, however, the message of climate change does resonate. During her tenure, Mayor Barry has created a Livable Nashville Committee, which works to reduce emissions, pollution, and waste. In June, she appointed a chief resilience officer to plan climate resilience strategies throughout the city. The local government has also created a database that the Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Geological Survey, and Metro Water Services can access to better understand what areas are likely to flood. There’s also a website residents can visit to access emergency information and learn about possible flooding events.

Metro Water Services is also working on a plan to update Nashville’s stormwater infrastructure: Earlier this year, the council approved a plan to hike water bills to address the city’s aging rain drainage system, which has $207 million backlog of stormwater projects.

There will be many tests of these resilience strategies in the future, especially as Americans living on the coasts in places like Florida and Louisiana move to inland metro centers like Nashville: By 2100, the city could see nearly 53,000 new transplants fleeing rising seas. “Every generation is called upon to meet challenges, and [climate change] is ours,” says Dodd Galbreath, professor of sustainability at Lipscomb University in Nashville, who is also on the Livable Nashville Committee. “It’s kind of a catch-22. We can’t wall off everything and pump everything―there isn’t enough money in the world to manage the water. So at some point, we have to work with nature, and that is the place where Nashville finds itself now.”

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