Richland Creek Sign

A sign in Hardin Park warns visitors to stay out of Richland Creek.

Half a dozen bags crammed full of garbage. Two pairs of shoes. Over 300 cigarette butts.

That's only a sliver of what students from West Greene High School and members of the Middle Nolichucky Watershed Alliance plucked out of Richland Creek during a cleanup two months ago.

A section of the creek meanders through Hardin Park, a popular spot for kids to play and for pet owners to walk their animals.

Because of litter and cows grazing too close to the water in nearby fields, the United States Environmental Protection Agency labels the shallow stream "impaired" -- too polluted to meet the standards set by the Clean Water Act of 1972 -- for fish and aquatic life.

Signs at the park discourage children from wading in the water.

"I wish everything was like Horse Creek and Paint Creek, pristine coming out of the mountains," said Butch Patterson, director of the Greeneville Parks and Recreation and a Greene County commissioner. "You see how many kids are in our parks and playgrounds. When you've got water, it's a natural drawing card. It would be great if it were cleaner."

Industries absorb a sizable share of the blame for polluted water sources.

That criticism isn't entirely unfair, according to the EPA: Hazardous waste sites and discharge from factories pollute or threaten more than 150 miles of waterways in Tennessee.

But bad practices by the public and the agricultural community in particular deal critical blows to creeks and streams in Greene County, a look at records from the EPA show.

In the Volunteer State, the EPA charges that waste from cattle grazing along the banks of creeks, streams and rivers mars more than 6,000 miles of waterways.

That's more than from any other source.

Lick Creek, which starts in the northern swath of the county and spills into the Nolichucky River near the Hamblen County line, offers a clear example.

The EPA declares the creek polluted by a slew of sources.

In 2012, the last time the EPA updated Lick Creek's status, the federal agency listed agriculture as the likely source of contamination -- cows eating too close to the creek bank, farmers poorly managing irrigation, and manure and other barnyard feces running directly into the water.

The contaminates play spoiler for both the public and wildlife.

Late Greeneville Sun columnist Bob Hurley wrote of farm boys going for summer afternoon swims in Lick Creek in the 1920s and 1930s. Today, the EPA says the creek is unfit for recreation.

Contaminating the water is e. coli, a nasty bacteria that can land even the healthiest of people in the hospital. And high levels of nitrates, often from runoff tainted by fertilizer, degrade the environment by disrupting the natural habitat of insects and fish, according to the EPA.

These findings bring into focus some of the debates surrounding alleged industry-related pollution.

A few of the loudest voices of opposition to western Greene County's industrial development are farmers in Cocke, Greene and Hamblen counties. But officials and experts agree agriculture is contributing to the problem by allowing cattle to wander close to waterways and failing to properly manage water runoff.

"Agricultural practices are still one of the major contributors, but not the only one," said Dan Barnett, an associate professor of chemistry at Tusculum College and a member of the watershed alliance.

The alliance recommends farmers make environment-friendly decisions, such as creating a buffer zone (usually around 35 feet) between land grazed by cattle and a body of water. Farmers should also ensure runoff sullied by feces and fertilizers doesn't make it to the nearest pond, creek or stream, the organization advises.

While much of the Nolichucky River is suitable for recreation, a section near Hamblen County is impaired for aquatic life because of agriculture and sediment buildup, according to the EPA.

Money, or a lack of it, is often what pushes farmers away from eco-friendly practices, agriculture officials said.

Consider a farmer who operates a small-scale beef cattle operation.

There may be little incentive to add new fencing or pay someone to reroute runoff if a farmer owns only a few dozen acres and earns little profit over the course of a year.

"I admit that it can be expensive," said Mike McElroy, district conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Financial help is available to those who want to make their farms kinder to local waterways, McElroy said.

His office offers grant options, including a federal program that helps farmers pay for fencing, water troughs, pipelines and other items. Available to some is a state grant that covers 75 percent of costs based on a farmer's receipts.

"It's a good service because it's expensive to provide water to cattle," he said. "Fencing is not all that expensive, but when you are putting a pipeline in and getting it centrally located so that you maximize your acreage in your farm, it gets expensive."

Eddie Yokley, a former state representative, says he takes steps to ensure his 60-acre farm doesn't introduce pathogens to water sources.

"I've got it fenced to where the cows can't openly always pasture on the creek. I do it in sections," he said. "But it can get expensive. From a farmer's perspective, it would not be feasible without the assistance economically."

Some of the laws and regulations governing farmers and water pollution are about as muddy as a flooding Lick Creek.

While Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation spokeswoman Kelly Brockman said her office "obviously strongly advises good practices," she could not recall any laws that strictly prohibit farmers polluting creeks and streams via animal excrement or barnyard runoff.

Just last month, disputes over agriculture and water quality sparked fierce debates between Republicans and Democrats, as well as farm lobbies and conservationists.

President Barack Obama, as well as the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers, propose sweeping changes to the Clean Water Act that would have, among other mandates, given federal authorities more control to investigate both discharge from farms and water quality in ponds and streams that form only in heavy downpours or floods.

Many Republicans dubbed the proposals government overreach.

In an April news release, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., called the idea "a big, wet blanket of regulation on farmers in Tennessee and across the country."

"The Obama administration's penchant for burdensome overreach has gone so far that the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are trying to regulate farmers' mud puddles," he said. "That would mean higher costs for Tennessee families, farmers and businesses."