CHURCH HILL — Just as it did in the Mel Gibson movie “The River” that was filmed there more than 32 years ago, the Holston River is claiming real estate at Hawkins County’s popular Laurel Run Park.
The 2,500-foot-long shoreline at Laurel Run Park has been eroded by the Holston River an average of 6-8 feet during the past five years.
Park manager Joe Lindsey can point out places where he used to be able to drive a riding mower between the river and trees only three years ago.
Today those trees are only connected to the shoreline by a tangle of exposed roots.
Just upstream from the park is a major river bend, and when it rains, the current coming off of that bend puts pressure on the southern shore.
The park’s shoreline, between the confluence of Laurel Run Creek to the boat ramp at the far west end of the park, has been eroding at a rapid pace for the past several years.
“What happens is, when the water comes in it undercuts (the shore),” Lindsey said. “It turns it into — I think they call it brown water. It basically turns it into mud and just washes it out. The fluctuation of the river is what’s causing the problem.”
He added, “In the rainy season it rises as much as four feet, and drops that much as well, and with the rise and fall of it, it undercuts the bank. Then the top of the bank just falls off.”
Some sections of the shoreline have only experienced minimal loss, but Lindsey said he’s seen other areas that have lost 12-15 feet overt he past five years. He said for the entire stretch of shoreline it’s lost an average of 6-8 feet.
“There are places along the bank here where I used to mow around the trees, and now we can’t get within 10 feet of the tree,” he said.
After "The River" wrapped filming in 1984, the producers gave the property to Hawkins County.
The Hawkins County Commission has been aware of the erosion problem for about two years, but the process of correcting it is slow, especially when there are no local funds available for a shoreline protection project.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s division of Soil Conservation provided the county with an engineering report on the Laurel Run Park shoreline at no cost.
County facilities manager Alana Roberts told the Times-News Monday she’s hoping to receive approval from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation within the next 10 days for the permit required to commence with the shoreline protection work needed at Laurel Run, as outlined in the engineering report.
The biggest hurdle for the county, however, will be to find funding for the project.
Roberts said the Tennessee Valley Authority has made a tentative offer to help, and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency has also expressed an interest in offering assistance.
But the amount of assistance those two agencies will be able to offer is still unknown, as is the exact cost of the project.
Two years ago, Lindsey was told by a private property owner who had shoreline erosion prevention completed near the park that it cost $27,500 to do 270 feet.
The parks shoreline is nearly 10 times that length, which could put the project in the quarter million dollar range. Hawkins County’s proposed budget is so tight this year, any new spending is out of the question.
“It was around mid-August or late August of last year when we first started trying to find people who could help us stop that river bank from eroding, through grants or some other financial assistance,” Roberts said. “TVA has met with us, and we’ve worked with (the USDA’s division of) soil conservation. We want to put in some geothermal blankets, some riprap, planting trees and shrubs, to try to hold that river bank.”
Roberts said that once the TDEC permit is approved they will begin seeking partnerships and funding assistance for the project from various state and federal agencies.
In the meantime, Lindsey is advising park patrons to use extreme caution when walking along the shoreline — especially when the water level is up.
Lindsey noted that erosion creates hollow places and holes along the shoreline that are hazards and can collapse under a person’s weight.
“We don’t want to rope it off,” he said. “A lot people fish the shoreline. But, it’s a hazard. You’ve got to be careful or you’ll end up in the river.”