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engineers and model of dam

Telling the Story of Tellico: It’s Complicated

Tellico Dam is one of the most controversial projects in TVA history. Although the region now supports a thriving recreation industry due to the reservoir, its impoundment came with costs

Tellico Reservoir is a popular spot for boating, swimming, and fishing.

At full pool, it has 357 miles of shoreline, and its 15,560 acres of surface water cover portions of Blount, Monroe, and Loudon counties. Smallmouth and spotted bass are present, and Tellico is known for its numerous quality-size largemouth and abundant crappie.

The area is home to three golf resort residential communities. The 4,800-acre Tellico Village was built in the 1980s as part of a plan by TVA to use the shoreline lands around the reservoir for industrial, residential, and recreational development.

To carry out that commitment, TVA encouraged Loudon, Monroe, and Blount counties and the Tennessee legislature to create the Tellico Reservoir Development Agency. It promotes the Tellico Peninsula, located adjacent to the reservoir, as an area of economic development opportunity for corporate and industrial sites with low environmental impact.

Tellico Dam does not generate electricity; it diverts the river flow through a canal into the nearby Fort Loudoun Reservoir, adding 23 megawatts to the hydropower capacity at Fort Loudoun Dam. Tellico’s reservoir also provides 120,000 acres of flood storage above Chattanooga, formerly one of the most flood-prone cities in the nation.

Tellico Reservoir and its canal to Fort Loudoun Reservoir also provide navigation access to the mainstem Tennessee River.

Era of Controversy

Tellico Dam is one of the most controversial projects in TVA history.

Although the region now supports a thriving recreation industry due to the reservoir, its impoundment came with costs. The dam transformed the last stretch of the Little Tennessee River’s shallow, free-flowing fishery — with clean gravel and cobble substrates — into an environment with little flow, increased depth, and a silt-covered riverbed.

As a result, native species of fish and mussels suffered. Blotchside logperch, spotfin chub, blue sucker, and more than 20 aquatic species no longer exist in Little Tennessee due to the impoundment of Tellico Reservoir.

In addition to the environmental impacts on native species, the Tellico Project acquired 22,000 acres through federal eminent domain law. It flooded several Cherokee archeological sites and impacted Fort Loudoun, the first British fort west of the Appalachia Mountains.

TVA proposed the Tellico Project as an economic development initiative designed to stimulate the local economy with 6,600 new jobs—60% of which would come from the new commercial manufacturing industry. That opportunity never came to fruition. 

TVA studied the site as far back as 1936 but delayed construction due to World War II. Construction began in 1967 after TVA received the Congressional green light for the project.

Despite protest, the Tellico Project moved forward until the summer of 1973, when a 3-inch fish, known today as the snail darter, was discovered swimming above the construction site. The fish garnered protection from the newly minted Endangered Species Act and became the center of controversy when dam opponents filed a lawsuit on its behalf.

TVA transplanted populations of snail darters from the Little Tennessee to nearby rivers and streams prior to the lawsuit halting construction in 1977 when the 6th Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the fish.

Tellico Dam was 90% complete at the time.

In 1978, the Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s decision.

The final ruling sparked a flurry of political wrangling in which Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker spearheaded an amendment to the Endangered Species Act. The new legislation set up an Endangered Species Committee with the power to grant exemptions for some federal projects that were deemed more valuable than the endangered species in question.

Because of its power over the life of certain species, the panel was nicknamed the “God Committee.”

Initial members included representatives from the Department of the Interior, Department of Agriculture, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Council of Economic Advisers, Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Army.

Proponents of the “God Committee” argued that without it, biologists and environmental groups could use obscure insects, fish, and micro-biotic life forms to thwart economic development initiatives.

Opponents contended the committee was playing God, deciding which species would be sacrificed in the face of “progress.”

The God Committee upheld previous rulings when it voted against a Tellico Project exemption in January 1979.

Later that year, Sen. Baker added a rider in the 1980 public works appropriations bill that exempted Tellico from the Endangered Species Act.

It was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter.

Amid local, regional and national media coverage, the gates of the dam closed on Nov. 29, 1979.

Tellico Today

Before the Tellico Project, 28% unemployment was reported in Monroe County.

Today, the local economy experiences unemployment levels in line with the national average due to the region’s thriving recreational industry.

TVA’s contribution to the reservoir and peninsula supports about 1,800 jobs and $137 million in capital investment annually as a result of economic development efforts led by the Tellico Reservoir Development Agency.

As for the snail darter, the fish was reclassified from endangered to threatened in 1984 and now thrives throughout the Tennessee River system. Kentucky Reservoir is the only Tennessee River fishery that has yet to document the existence of healthy snail darter populations.

In July 2019, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to lift all Endangered Species Act protections for the snail darter.

The fish was delisted on Oct. 4, 2022.

Lessons Learned

The controversy surrounding the Tellico Project prompted TVA to establish a natural heritage group in 1978 as well as a cultural resources department in 1979.

The natural heritage group employs biologists and wetland specialists to protect fish and wildlife throughout the agency’s seven-state service region. The group continues to perform environmental assessments on the potential impacts of all TVA construction projects.

TVA’s cultural resources department, known today as Cultural Compliance, is responsible for TVA’s compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act and other federal preservation legislation.

This group of professional archaeologists and historians works in partnership with multiple federally recognized Native American tribes along with state and federal officials to preserve historic sites and cultural landmarks on TVA lands and lands affected by TVA projects.