TVA and the Snail Darters:
A Case Study in Environmental Management


Teresa Sparks
UTC Environmental Science Program

In 1967, Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) began construction on its Tellico Dam and Reservoir project. The goals of the project were to create hydroelectric power, promote shoreline development, provide recreational areas and serve as a means for flood control. Once operational, the dam would convert the Little Tennessee River from a shallow, fast-moving stream, to a deep reservoir approximately 30 miles in length. It would also back water up onto 16,500 acres of previously dry land.

The project proved undesirable almost from the beginning. In 1971, then Governor of Tennessee, Windfield Dunn, petitioned TVA to cancel the project because he believed the dam would destroy the recreational value of the Little Tennessee River. Native Americans also wanted the project halted. The dam would flood land that held significant historical value for their culture: called the "Jerusalem of the Cherokees," the land was thought to be sacred. Owners of 340 local farms were angry because the project would result in the flooding of their land as well. In spite of these complaints, TVA was going through with the project.

Soon, however, TVA was faced with larger objections. A previously unknown species of fish, the Snail Darter (Percina tanasi) had been discovered in the waters upstream of the dam in August of 1973. In 1975, the fish received an emergency listing by the Fish and Wildlife service under the newly passed Endangered Species Act. The next year, a citizens group that included local farmers, Native Americans, environmentalists and others brought a case before the District Court. They claimed that TVA’s actions violated the Endangered Species Act and asked the court to halt the project. While the court agreed that TVA’s actions would likely extinguish the Snail Darter population—an obvious violation of the act—the court ruled that TVA be allowed to proceed because the project was more than eighty percent complete by this time and halting the project would waste millions in tax payer dollars. Furthermore, the court viewed Congress’s continued appropriation of funds to the project as indicative of their desire to see the project proceed regardless of their newly passed Endangered Species Act.

Following the court decision, TVA indicated to Congress that they were attempting to transplant members of the Snail Darter population to similar habitat in the area. Congress apparently liked this idea, and additional funds were made available to TVA to facilitate this process. Between 1975 and 1976, 710 Snail Darters were taken from the Little Tennessee River and released into areas of the Hiwassee River. An additional sixty-one were relocated to the Nolichucky River.

Meanwhile, the District Court’s decision to allow the project to proceed was being reviewed by the Federal Appeals Court. The Federal Appeals Court disagreed with the District Court’s decision and demanded the project be halted until either Congress exempted the project from the Endangered Species Act or the Snail Darter was no longer threatened with extinction.

Following this decision, Congress continued to appropriate funds to the project and TVA continued efforts to relocate members of the species. The Nolichucky River stocking was halted after additional research found the area to be unsuitable for the species. Biologists began moving darters from the Hiwassee River to parts of the Holston River.

At the same time, the Supreme Court was reviewing the Federal Appeals Court’s decision. On June 15, 1978 the Supreme Court released its decision. It was the Supreme Courts belief that the Tellico Dam project, if completed, would violate the Endangered Species Act which stated that a species be protected regardless the cost involved. Chief Justice Warren Burger explained,

"One would be hard pressed to find a statutory provision whose terms were any plainer than those in Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act. Its very words affirmatively command all federal agencies ‘to insure that actions authorized, funded, or carried out by them do not jeopardize the continued existence’ of an endangered species or ‘result in the destruction or modification of habitat of such species’. This language admits of no exceptions."

"It may seem curious to some that the survival of a relatively small number of three-inch fish among all the countless millions of species [that exist] would require the permanent halting of a virtually completed dam for which Congress has expended more than $100 million. The paradox is not minimized by the fact that Congress continued to appropriate large sums of public money for the project, even after ... [it knew about the dam's ] ... impact upon the survival of the snail darter".   TVA v. Hill, 437 U.S. 153 (1978).

The position of the Supreme Court was clear: TVA was violating the Endangered Species Act and must halt work on the Tellico Dam.

Following the Supreme Court’s decision, a committee created under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act convened to consider exempting the Tellico project from the act. The decision, based on economic not ecological factors, was that TVA’s project did not warrant an exemption from the act. It appeared that the battle was finally over and TVA was the losing party.

On September 5, 1979, however, President Carter signed the Energy and Water Development Appropriation Bill, which included a provision proposed by Tennessee Senator Howard Baker and Congressman John Duncan, also of Tennessee, allowing the project to be completed in spite of the Supreme Court’s ruling. TVA immediately began work to remove the last of the Snail Darters from the Little Tennessee River.

Following the signing of the bill, the Cherokee Indians brought a new case against TVA. They claimed that completion of the project would result in the flooding of lands considered sacred to Native Americans—a clear violation of the National Historic Preservation Act. The court dismissed the case citing the provision in the Energy and Water Development Appropriation Bill that authorized completion of the project in spite of any other laws which might prohibit it.

On November 29, 1979 the dam was completed and the gates were closed. The Snail Darter population of the Little Tennessee River was extinguished. Other populations of the fish have been found in South Chickamauga Creek, Sewee Creek, Sequatchie River, Paint Rock River, and elsewhere. While some of these populations are believed to be naturally occurring, most are the result of TVA’s transplant projects. On July 5, 1984, the Snail Darter was downgraded to "threatened" by the Fish and Wildlife Service. For the Native American’s, things did not end so happily. Regardless of all the legal maneuvering they had participated in to prevent TVA from proceeding with plans to flood their land, they found themselves the losing party.