The Big Comeback

News outlets often cover captivating features about down-and-out celebrities who have made unlikely comebacks, but one of the nation’s biggest comeback stories isn’t about a person, it’s about a little fish. Once an endangered species, the Snail Darter is now enjoying new-found fame, thanks to TVA and other friends.

The history
In the early ‘70s, TVA wasn’t far from finishing construction on Tellico Dam, a project designed to support economic development and recreational opportunities in East Tennessee. The three surrounding counties—Loudon, Blount and Monroe—struggled with dismal unemployment numbers and lack of economic development.

Tellico Dam offered the opportunity for jobs provided by low-impact industry and tourism created by recreation on the reservoir. But when the snail darter, a wee fish about the size of your pinky, was discovered in the waters above the dam and was deemed an endangered species, project opponents invoked the newly established Endangered Species Act, halting dam construction.

A balancing act
As the process played out on the national stage, TVA aquatic biologists worked to mitigate the issue by collecting hundreds of snail darters and releasing them into waterways in the Valley that were similar to their original Little Tennessee River habitat. The goal was to re-establish the fish in a number of different areas, an example of the balancing act required of TVA, which works to preserve, protect and improve the Tennessee River System while also delivering reliable power, economic development and more.

Eventually, Tellico Dam was given the green light and was completed in 1979. Within just a few years, the snail darter population began to increase, thanks to the work of TVA and a host of other state and federal agencies. By 1984, the species was downgraded from “endangered” to “threatened” by the US. Fish and Wildlife Service. But this tiny fish wasn’t finished making a big splash.

Beginning of a movement
“The snail darter was a high profile fish that served as a wake-up call and created a movement,” says Shannon O’Quinn, TVA water resources specialist. “The snail darter caused people to thoughtfully consider biodiversity and the need to protect not only that fish, but all aquatic life in the Tennessee Valley.”

Indeed, environmental knowledge, understanding and awareness had evolved over the previous five decades. TVA was created by congress in 1933 to foster the economic and social well-being of the people of the Tennessee Valley, including the wise use and conservation of the region’s natural resources. It was time to reevaluate the way in which the TVA’s reservoir system operated.

New Ideas
In 1987 a comprehensive review was authorized by TVA that resulted in a program to improve the quantity and quality of releases from 20 dams in the Valley. Over the next five years, facilities and operating procedures were designed and put into place to meet two critical target conditions: minimum flow and dissolved oxygen, both vital components for a healthy fish population.

“Water quality improvements from TVA’s Operations, mainly the Reservoir Release Improvement Program, have laid the groundwork for this species recovery,” says Dennis Baxter, TVA manager of River and Reservoir Compliance Monitoring Program.

“We’re in a terrific spot with more than 300 fish species in the Valley—more than anywhere else in North America,” says O’Quinn. “We’ve got fish that live nowhere else in the world but right here. Their habitat is improving, making it suitable to reestablish fish like the snail darter so they can flourish. We work tirelessly to make sure it stays that way.”

TVA often catalyzes the efforts of organizations such as the US Forest Service, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, the University of Tennessee, the Nature Conservancy, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, plus a variety of other agencies and non-profit organizations that continue to make improvements for aquatic life in the Valley. This is a great example of that.

“TVA’s Reservoir Ecological Health Program, both river/reservoir and streams community assessments, along with many other TVA field initiatives, have pooled resources from multiple programs to collect as much information as possible to support delisting this fish from the Endangered Species List,” says Baxter.

A good ending
“This is a story with a good ending,” says Allen Clare, vice president of TVA River & Resources Stewardship. “From barrier removal in the Tennessee River Basin to the Tennessee Buffer Initiative, TVA Natural Resources is proud of our aquatic conservation efforts, as well as our educational outreach emphasizing the importance of preserving these habitats.”

Thankfully, the big comeback of a little fish and the effect it has had on environmental efforts is proof positive that the future is bright as TVA and its partners work to create more happy endings for the species of the Tennessee Valley.

Learn more about TVA’s conservation efforts here: TVA 2021 Stewardship book and 2020 Natural Resources Plan.

Learn more about Tellico’s history here.