engineers and model of dam

Telling the Story of Tellico: It’s Complicated

Tellico Dam in East Tennessee transformed a stagnant region into a recreation wonderland, and provided much needed economic stimulus. But not without some serious controversy first.

Of all the dams built by TVA over the years, by far the most famous—or infamous, depending on how you read it—would have to be Tellico.

Although the site on the Little Tennessee River had been studied as far back as 1936, the dam did not become a reality until more than 40 years later. Construction was delayed by World War II and took 31 years to finally start.

And that’s when the real trouble began.

Tiny Fish, Big Problem

The Tellico site lies at the confluence of Watts Bar and Fort Loudoun reservoirs in East Tennessee—about 30 miles southwest of Knoxville. Despite early studies of the site, the project didn’t pick up speed until the mid-1960s when the dam received Congressional approval and construction got underway.

The dam and reservoir required the purchase of about 22,000 acres of land. Landowners who would be displaced had objections from the beginning, and they were joined by the Cherokee Indians, the trout fishing industry, and various environmentalist groups, all of whom had their own reasons for resisting the project.

Tellico Dam overcame all obstacles, however, until the summer of 1973, when a tiny, nondescript fish—no bigger than a pinky finger—threw a monkey wrench into the works.

The snail darter—a three-inch-long member of the perch family that feeds on aquatic snails—was discovered living in the river. That same year, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was created, and the snail darter was on it. Dam opponents filed a lawsuit that went to the Supreme Court, which halted construction even though the dam was about 75 percent complete at the time.

TVA then documented its work in successfully transplanting hundreds of snail darters from the Little Tennessee to nearby rivers and streams. In 1979, with the help of Tennessee lawmakers, a bill was passed by Congress that exempted Tellico from the Endangered Species Act. Amid local, regional and national media coverage, the gates were finally closed on Nov. 29, 1979.

Settling the Water

Today, Tellico Lake is a popular spot for boating, swimming and fishing. At full pool, it has 361 miles of shoreline and covers portions of Blount, Monroe and Loudon counties. Smallmouth and spotted bass are present, and Tellico is known for its numerous, quality-size largemouth as well as abundant crappie.

Along its shores, three golf resort residential communities have sprung up. The 4,800-acre Tellico Village was built in the 1980s, part of a plan by TVA to use the shoreline lands around the lake 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,” the area adjacent to the reservoir, as an excellent location for corporate and industrial sites that have low impact on the environment. Unemployment in the region has fallen from 10.4 percent in 1982 to only about 4 percent today. (Before the Tellico project, unemployment in Monroe County was reported to be close to 24 percent.)

Tellico Dam does not generate electricity by itself; it diverts the river flow through a canal into nearby Fort Loudoun Lake, adding 23 MW to the hydropower at Fort Loudoun Dam. Tellico’s reservoir also provides additional flood storage above Chattanooga, formerly one of the U.S.’s most flood-prone cities.

Tellico Lake and its canal connecting to Fort Loudoun Lake have opened up traffic for boats and barges that can navigate the Tennessee, Ohio and Mississippi Rivers all the way to the ocean.

As for the little snail darter—in 1984 it was reclassified from endangered to threatened, and now thrives in several nearby rivers and creeks.

In July 2019, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to lift all protections for the snail darter, saying it is no longer in danger of extinction. The group confirms that populations have expanded to other waterways in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee.