Gray quarry being developed as a hot spot for scuba divers, search and rescue teams

Tony Casey • Updated Oct 20, 2015 at 7:23 PM

In the armpit of Interstate 26 and Bobby Hicks Highway in Gray is a quarry that’s been flooded since the 1970s.

Wayne Bartley, who now owns the quarry and the right-a-way to its depths from Buckingham Road, recently saw to it that the waters were rejuvenated and able to support teams of scuba divers and underwater search and rescue teams.

Bartley, who, with his wife Debi, has been diving locally and internationally for a long time, are establishing the property as a nonprofit entity that will give back to the sport they feel has given them so much. The quarry will be used as a way for East Tennessee State University’s scuba divers and others in their position to get certified, which lasts a life time.

“Diving has been good to me and my family,” Bartley said, with his sons and brothers involved in the same hobby. “I want to give back to diving.”

He estimates approximately three dozen area community divers come in and out of the quarry, exploring its depths, which reach 70 feet, and will do so 365 days a year.

Being 10 minutes outside Johnson City, Bartley said divers now have a much more accessible piece of open water available to them. South Holston Lake is another area option, but because of boat traffic and colder temperatures, it’s not as accessible as his property in Gray.

Through the summer, the quarry reached 74 degrees at the surface, but that’s not what matters most to local divers. It’s what happens well below the surface that make it the best option for those looking for a diving spot.

Bartley said it was also 74 degrees well below the surface, unlike South Holston Lake, where even in the middle of summer, the temperatures hit the low 50s.

Bartley brought increased the water’s temperatures, the visibility and the general quality of water — including the aquatic life and many fish species contained there — by putting in an aeriation system. This cost of this system, while successfully changing the entire makeup of the quarry, came directly out of Bartley’s pocket.

He doesn’t intend to make a single cent off the quarry, always hoping to keep it as a nonprofit resource for divers, but says he’d consider putting up a donation box near the loading and unloading entrance into the water from which funds would pay for the monthly aeration system costs as well as the power he’s had to run.

Because it sits directly next to Interstate 26, a new lighting system along the highway provides enough light that divers can get situated before going on night diving sessions.

Emergency services in Washington and Sullivan counties will both be using Bartley’s waters for mock search-and-rescue missions. In the coming weeks, Bartley will work with a crane team to lower an empty school bus to the bottom of the former quarry. Dummies strapped in to the old bus to act as a training mission.

Between EMS crews and diver hobbyists, Bartley is proud of the resource he’s able to share with his diving friends.

“Once we get it cleared, we can get kids a chance to dive and even get certified,” he said. “I want the kids out there.”

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