Recovering the wild from a wild river: Taking a look back

This post is part of a series running all month on freshwater mussels, highlighting their importance to the Northeast landscape and the concerted efforts underway to ensure their future in our waters.

The conflict between the demand for energy and the love of land

Poster for Wild River

The 1960 film Wild River, starring Montgomery Clift and Lee Remick, dramatically depicts the controversy surrounding the construction of a series of federal dams to harness the mighty Tennessee River for electrical power generation in the 1930s. The story opens when a Tennessee Valley Authority field administrator is sent to make way for one of the dams, but the Garth family and others living along the river resist leaving their land, which is to be flooded. Slowly, the conflict unfolds. 

Wild River pits the need for power generation and flood control against the preservation of land and culture. Construction of dams throughout the Tennessee River basin brought the region into the modern world but also displaced farm families and communities, altered aquatic habitats, and resulted in the loss of many native fish and mussels. 

TVA's Norris Dam on the lower Clinch River in Tennessee.

TVA’s Norris Dam on the lower Clinch River in Tennessee. Completed in 1936, it was the first of many dams constructed by TVA to harness the power of the Tennessee River System. The free-flowing portion of the Clinch River above the dam is the nation’s top hotspot for freshwater mussel diversity.

Although many fish and mussel species in the Tennessee River basin were lost when stream habitats were flooded by reservoirs, other activities such as urbanization, industrial pollution, channelization, agriculture, coal mining and road construction continue to pose threats to the conservation and recovery of aquatic species. Much needs to be done if the decline in the number of species is to be reversed, especially in the upper portions of the basin in southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee. 

Photo of the Clinch River, recognized as the nation's top hotspot for freshwater mussel diversity. Credit: USFWS

Photo of the Clinch River, recognized as the nation’s top hotspot for freshwater mussel diversity. Credit: USFWS

With 29 federally listed endangered, threatened and candidate species of freshwater mussels and fish, the Clinch and Powell rivers are globally significant. They serve as a biological Noah’s ark for many species decimated by events portrayed in Wild River. Protecting remnant populations within these free-flowing waters is critical to reversing the unprecedented declines in aquatic biodiversity. These declines are linked not just to dam construction, but also to changes in water quality and habitat degradation from a variety of activities across the landscape.

In the 1960s and 70s, shifting societal values, brought about in part by films such as Wild River, and the passage of environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act, meant protection of areas such as the Clinch and Powell rivers would become increasingly important to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Slowly, the agency began to work with a host of landowners, industry, and local, state, and federal partners (including Montgomery Clift’s TVA) to conserve aquatic biodiversity in the basin.

Freshwater mussels. Credit: USFWS

Freshwater mussels. Credit: USFWS

In 1994, the Service opened the Southwestern Virginia Field Office in Abingdon, Va., to better conserve and recover fish and mussels of the Clinch and Powell Rivers in the upper Tennessee River basin. The agency is doing this through various efforts: 

  • Identifying and mitigating contaminant impacts;
  • Restoring forested habitat along stream corridors;
  • Improving water quality;
  • Ensuring new projects include conservation measures;
  • Monitoring fish and mussel populations;
  • Recovering species; and 
  • Educating the public about aquatic conservation issues.

Wild River was a tragic tale. The elderly Mrs. Garth’s dark foreboding about the loss of her family’s river bottom land came true for her. Yet there’s still time for the Service to write a happy ending through its efforts to conserve and recover many of the wild fish and mussels of the Clinch and Powell rivers portion of the Tennessee River system.

For more details on how the Service is working to recover fish and mussel populations in the Clinch and Powell rivers, visit the following web pages:

Submitted by Roberta Hylton, the supervisor of the Service’s Southwest Virginia Field Office.

2 Comments on “Recovering the wild from a wild river: Taking a look back

  1. Roberta — great article on the history of the TVA dam building era and the efforts to save the remaining free-flowing rivers of the Tennessee Valley and their incredible resources!

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