A Story of Community Partnership: Obed Watershed & Uplands Village

In 2017, the Uplands Environmental Committee asked Obed Watershed Community Association (OWCA) Executive Director, Dennis Gregg, for consultation on stormwater issues at Uplands Village. One of Dennis’ recommendations was the creation of “no mow” buffers along waterways and lakes, which were subsequently instituted. 

During one of the discussions, Committee members expressed concern about sedimentation in Lake Laura and believed much of the recent sediment had come from two sources:

  • A recent construction project to transform the former nursing home
  • Logging on a piece of property that was not owned by Uplands Village

In Spring 2018, OWCA member Jean Cheely spoke to a friend, Dr. Franklin Cobos, who wanted some advice on restoring his land after logging. It turned out that this was the logging that had concerned the Uplands Environmental Committee. Dennis met with Dr. Cobos and, walking along the Frey Branch stream section on his property, saw significant sedimentation on the Cobos property and downstream on Uplands property. What Dennis did not anticipate was the presence of beavers whose two dams were preventing further movement of sediment into Lake Laura.

Frey Branch, a tributary of Wilkerson Creek, is part of the watershed for Caney Fork River. OWCA did not have funding for the use of the Caney Fork watershed so Dennis contacted the Cumberland Compact, a group that did have such funding. After a site visit, an engineering firm determined the cost to be around $200,000. After the Cumberland Compact did an analysis, they concluded that the project was not worth their effort. 

From there, Dennis contacted Karina Bynum, a Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) engineer with expertise in restoration work, and asked her to come and give feedback on what might be done and what issues TDEC might have with the project, emphasizing OWCA’s and Dr. Cobos’ desire to work with the beavers rather than try to eliminate them. What came out of that visit was TDEC’s prioritization for replacing an existing undersized culvert under Yonside Drive with one that could handle current stormwater peak flows – which at that time would inundate the road – and was needed so that fish and other aquatic species could move through the culvert freely. 

Without funding, the project could not move ahead, but discussions with Uplands Village and the City of Pleasant Hill occurred in 2019. Replacing the culvert was going to be the most expensive part of the project. It was unclear whether typical restoration funds could even be used for this, so the City and Uplands were approached about their interest and ability to take on that part. Both parties recognized the need to replace the culvert, which was costly in time and materials to maintain, and cut off residents when water overtopped the road. However, neither entity’s budget could add such a project, but each said they would help with part of the cost.

Fortunately for everyone, OWCA was approached by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture (TDA) with an offer of special funds that needed to be spent in 2020. Dennis explained there were potential projects, but they were outside of the Obed River watershed. He also explained that the Frey Branch project would need to use funds to replace the road culvert and wanted to be sure that funds could be used for that purpose. TDA approved these conditions, and the Frey Branch project moved forward and kicked off in March 2020. 

In June 2020, the City of Pleasant Hill conducted work under a separate permit, contracting with the Cumberland County Highway Department to replace the undersized culvert at Yonside Drive. The culvert was replaced with a 60″ diameter culvert with a slant cut on the ends and sunk to maintain a flat cobble area in the bottom, allowing passage for aquatic species. However, with the culvert installation complete, the road needed to be repaved which was completed in September 2022. 

Observation Platform & Sculpture

Over the summer of 2020, several Upland volunteers – led by Don Ranier – constructed and installed an observation platform and railing placed at the edge of the Lake Laura wetlands. 

In May 2023, volunteers returned to install a sculpture titled Wetlands Life, created and donated by metal artist Anne Ganley. The sculpture is affixed to the outside of the platform railing and commemorates the project to improve Tennessee waters and the collaboration with OWCA, Uplands Village, and the town of Pleasant Hill. 

The sculpture is a series of pieces capturing life in the wetlands in steel, including reeds, grasses, cattails, a rock, a snail, a swimming beaver, clouds across a moon, and rippling water. It can be viewed from the Yonside Drive culvert or from the spur on the Adshead wilderness trail. The steel is rusting, as the artist intended, to make the sculpture more visible against the galvanized railing. 

The Rain Gardens 

In June 2021, Dennis Gregg and Andy Linville, owner of Obed Forest Gardens and current OWCA Board President, met to determine the feasibility of establishing rain gardens along Main Street on either side of West Lake Road. The recent development of Uplands Aquatic Center and adjoining parking lots did not anticipate the quantity of stormwater runoff in the area, resulting in frequent flooding which contributed to sedimentation in Frey Branch and Lake Laura. Rain gardens slow and hold surface runoff allowing time for water to seep into the soil instead of carrying soil and chemicals downstream. 

After consultation with Uplands and Pleasant Hill officials, Andy provided a plan to Uplands in February 2022 to install two rain gardens situated in the area near the Wellness Center. Upon the plan’s approval, OWCA engaged Obed Forest Gardens in June to install the gardens. 

In August 2022, Andy Linville and his team from Obed Forest Gardens returned to begin preparing the site. They cut scrubby vegetation to ground level and used the debris combined with rock and tree limbs to build berms and two check dams designed to carry overflow from high-volume rain events. They spread aged chicken litter to add fertility without chemical fertilizers, followed by deep mulch of over 70 yards of aged compost, topped off with a tarp. 

Planting native species began on the sites in November 2022 when a team from Obed Forest Gardens, a representative from Knoxville’s Native Plant Rescue, and 20 volunteers from Uplands Village, Pleasant Hill, and OWCA installed over 1,700 native plants. In April 2023, Andy’s crew weeded and over-seeded the gardens with five pounds of native seeds. In August 2023, another round of planting of over 100 plants completed the work. 

Litter Removal 

Although Uplands residents routinely conducted ongoing litter clean-up throughout the project period, a major effort sponsored by OWCA occurred in April 2022. Dubbed “Whatever Lands on Main Street Ends Up in Tennessee Waters,” the event targeted about four miles of roadways and a 30-foot buffer region around Lake Laura, the wetlands, Lake Alice trailhead, and parking area, and the streams feeding into Lake Laura. 

Spearheaded by Uplands residents, twenty-six volunteers from Uplands Village, Pleasant Hill, OWCA membership, and Enough Already, a community advocacy group dedicated to reducing plastic waste, removed twenty-two 55-gallon bags of trash (plus four tires), from the area. The effort represented 92+ hours of volunteer work! 

Education and Signage 

Four educational events were held to communicate the project to the residents and employees of Uplands Village, as well as members of the community and city of Pleasant Hill. 

Education Session-Uplands Village

Andy Linville and the Obed Forest Garden crew installed 130 educational signs throughout the project area to highlight the partnership, inform the public on various subjects pertaining to watershed health, and identify native plant and wildlife species. Many of the signs have a QR code that can take viewers to more detailed information through their mobile devices. 

Thank You to the Volunteers!

Oh, the volunteers! They were the lifeblood of this project. Many of the individuals who participated volunteered over and over again. 

On behalf of the communities, on behalf of those that live downstream, and on behalf of Mother Nature, we thank each of you for giving your precious time to this truly wonderful accomplishment. We also want to thank OWCA, the City of Pleasant Hill, TDEC, TDA, Obed Forest Gardens, and every organization and person who contributed to this project.