Biodiversity Heroes

Conservationists, biologists and environmentalists come together each year to help protect the most biodiverse river system in North America—the Tennessee.

They may not wear costumes, but when it comes to caring for the Tennessee River, a lot of superheroes gathered in Chattanooga on Aug. 15 and 16, 2017, when TVA hosted the third annual Tennessee River Biodiversity Network meeting.

Conservationists, biologists, environmental leaders and other partners from across the region come together every year, focused on protecting and saving the river’s unique aquatic life.

To highlight TVA’s ongoing efforts to care for the river, reporters were invited to come along on a fish survey (pictured below).


“The Tennessee River is home to more aquatic species than any other region in North America and contains one of the most diverse aquatic ecosystems in the world,” says Shannon O’Quinn, TVA aquatic biologist and event organizer. “When it comes to aquatic biodiversity, there are few places left on this planet that can compete with the Tennessee River.”

The Tennessee River watershed holds more than 230 species of fish and 100 species of mussels, which is more of both species than any other U.S. watershed. University of Tennessee study. But with 57 of the fish species considered at risk, at least 15 on the federal endangered or threatened list, and more than 47 mussel species also at risk, the network has a lot of work ahead.

“While we have the most biodiverse watershed in the nation, we also have the highest number of imperiled species of any large basin in North America,” O’Quinn says. “This is one reason why this network partnership is needed now more than ever before.”

O’Quinn has billions of other reasons why the partnership is needed. According to a new study by TVA and the University of Tennessee's Institute of Agriculture, the economic impact to the region of recreation on TVA’s reservoir system amounts to $11.9 billion a year. Furthermore, the study revealed that there are approximately 130,000 jobs associated with this recreation.

“It’s important to bring stakeholders together to work on solutions to the immense challenges facing the globally significant watersheds of the Southeast,” says Dr. Anna George, the Tennessee Aquarium’s vice president of Conservation Science and Education. “Protecting the river that is cherished across our state requires innovative projects that bring together diverse members of our community.”

Award Winners

At the meeting, TVA gave awards to partner groups in two categories: Education/Outreach and Science/Management. A $5,000 cash prize is being donated to each winner’s Environmental Conservation organization of choice..

  • Education/Outreach winner: The Clinch River Valley Initiative, focused on educating kids and adults on aquatic biodiversity and the importance of “Virginia’s Hidden River.”
  • Science/Management winner: The Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition, which works to improve water quality and aquatic life in the Upper Hiwassee River watershed in North Carolina and Georgia.

“These award winners, like those in the past, are well deserving of this recognition,” says Evan Crews, senior manager of Natural Resources Management for TVA. “Their accomplishments represent the dedicated people and organizations that care for—and have had an enormous positive impact on—water resources and the aquatic biodiversity throughout the Tennessee River Basin.”

The Tennessee River Basin Network is a joint effort organized by TVA, with strong support by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Tennessee Aquarium. Partnership groups include federal agencies and tribal nations, state Agencies and regional partnerships, and non-governmental organizations and local community groups.

From 2014 to 2016, TVA provided $2.6 million and remaining network partners provided an additional $2.5 million to implement protection/improvement measures including purchasing conservation easements, establishing riparian stream buffers, removing aquatic stream barriers, creating in-stream habitat and implementing stream-bank restoration projects.

“We have come so far in these three years with so many great initiatives as a result of this partnership, and more are being planned for the future,” O’Quinn says. “There has been some amazing work by these organizations and individuals to protect, conserve and enhance our unique landscape within the Tennessee River Basin.”

For more information, visit the Tennessee River Basin Network website at

Across the Tennessee River Basin

A collaboration between multiple organizations—including TVA, the Tennessee Aquarium and the Appalachian Landscape Conservation Cooperation—Across the Tennessee River Basin aims to deliver conservation actions for the Tennessee River watershed, one of the most diverse freshwater ecosystems in the world. The mainstem Tennessee River winds its way for roughly 650 miles through Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, back into Tennessee, and finally into Kentucky, where it empties into the Ohio River. Streams from these states, as well as North Carolina and Georgia, feed the river along its course. Countless fish, mussels, invertebrates and plants depend on the river for survival. To find out how you can get involved with conservation efforts, or to learn more about this biodiversity hotspot, click here.