Tellico Dam still generating
1970s snail-darter case was high-water
mark of discord over structure's merits
By Robert Wilson knoxnews.com
On some level it was all about an adverb, that
controversy three decades ago.
The thought went: "It's only a 3-inch fish."
Only? That turned out to be the fighting word.
And that 3-inch fish became a whale of a problem for a federal utility,
which to that point 30 years ago had what some say was a free hand to do
what it wanted and a money stream with which to do it.
Today, the fish - a not-so-beautiful, little brown bottom-hugger called
the snail darter - survives, even thrives, scientists say. And the $116
million dam it almost mothballed in midconstruction did get built.
But nerves exposed by the monumental battle between TVA and those who
didn't want the Tellico Dam to destroy a midsize river and inundate
scores of family farms can still draw a sharp reaction if touched.
The dam, according to the man who won a U.S. Supreme Court decision that
the structure violated federal law, is "an artifact of institutional
"There were people inside of TVA who couldn't stop it," said Zygmunt
Plater, who in the early 1970s was a law professor at the University of
Tennessee. He called Tellico Dam "a pipsqueak," the 69th dam TVA would
build and one that never lived up to the justifications that had been
promoted when it was first envisioned in the late 1930s.
David Etnier, the UT Ph.D. biologist who discovered the snail darter on
Aug. 12, 1973, said the agency engaged in "condemning private property
for real estate speculation."
A 1939 report furnished by TVA shows the agency advocating construction
of Tellico Dam based on three "prospective benefits" - power generation,
flood control and navigation at a cost of $12 million. Land development
and recreational benefits are not mentioned.
TVA records show Tellico Dam lost much of its urgency when the nation
redirected most of its resources to fighting World War II. But by 1966,
it was headed back to the front burner. By then, the estimated cost was
up to $42.5 million, but with a projection that the cost "will be
substantially reduced by proceeds from subsequent sales of lands
acquired for project purposes."
It also said the plan ensures that "the very sizable recreational and
industrial potentials of the Tellico reservoir are fully realized."
Proceeds from the sale of recreational and industrial development would
reap about $10.9 million.
Economic development costs
The dam ended up costing more than $110 million, not counting legal
fees, and TVA and the Tellico Reservoir Development Agency are quick to
say the project has lived up to its billing, even exceeded it.
TRDA is a nonprofit, quasi-governmental economic development agency
created in 1982 by Tennessee's General Assembly, according to Ron
Hammontree, the agency's director. It purchased 11,000 acres from TVA
and oversees that property's use and development, both residential and
To date, Hammontree said, there are 3.7 million square feet of
industrial facilities in and around Tellico Lake, all in the Tellico
West industrial park and employing about 3,600 people.
The newest member of the Tellico Lake business community is Christensen
Shipyards, a manufacturer of mega-yachts up to 225 feet long, the kind
whose price tag is in the millions and with delivery times measured in
The Christensen plant, which will have a Greenback address in Loudon
County, will be 400,000 square feet, Hammontree said, and employ 1,200.
It will be completed in 2011, he noted.
"People don't realize that people on Tellico Lake can reach 24 states by
water," he said.
Hammontree said that including construction work, Tellico Reservoir
projects have created as many as 6,000 jobs. Plus, there are the
exclusive residential developments of Tellico Village, Rarity Bay,
Harbour Place and Foothills Pointe.
A 1961 TVA document estimated that 23,000 acres in 525 tracts would have
to be purchased to create the Tellico Reservoir. It is estimated that
property owners were paid about $600 an acre for the land.
Jeff Harrington, affiliated with Tellico Lake Realty in Vonore, said it
would be easy today to pay $600 per linear foot of shoreline on the lake
for a residential lot that would be from one-half to just over 1 acre.
As far as power, Tellico Dam has no generator. It diverts water toward
Fort Loudoun Dam, increasing the electricity generation capabilities
there. Critics say what it contributes to Fort Loudoun's 145,000
kilowatts of capacity is so minuscule as to not be worth the cost of
construction and relocation of more than 300 families whose farms were
Plater said a study exists that contends more energy could be generated
by burning the crops that would have been raised in the valley than what
the dam produces.
Hank Hill, the original plaintiff in the federal court lawsuit against
TVA over the snail darter, characterized the acquisition of land for the
reservoir as "theft of property."
"It was some of the most fertile farmland in East Tennessee. I defy
anybody to face me and tell me that it was a good idea to build that
dam. It would have been a lot better to have the trout river."
Tellico Dam holds back the flow of the Little Tennessee River, which
Etnier said was a beautiful midsize river rich in aquatic life. But as
for what the river has become, "I am sickened by it."
TVA, he said, had "dammed all of the most interesting rivers" by the
early 1970s, and on what was known as the Little T, "here they were
going to do another one."
Hill v. TVA
Etnier acknowledged being opposed to the dam from the beginning and was
helping opponents with a biological strategy to prevent the project when
he went snorkeling that August day looking for species and their habitat
that might be threatened by the dam's construction. The Endangered
Species Act was still 4 1/2 months from being signed into law by
President Richard Nixon.
Etnier had predicted there could be as many as 10 threatened species at
the site. He said he reached down and brought the little fish up in his
"As soon as it cleared the water," he said, "I knew nobody had ever seen
The little brown fish became known not only by its scientific name -
Percina (Imostoma) tanasi - but also by its less highfalutin name, the
It got its name from the fact that tiny snails are its prime diet and it
is prone to sharp, quick changes of direction when in the water.
Etnier said he knew he had "possibly found the chance to help save the
He said one of his students was friends with law student Hill, who was
looking for a topic for a paper he was to write. In reading the proposed
Endangered Species Act, Hill realized there might be grounds for a legal
challenge to the dam. The act was signed into law in December 1973 by
Nixon, and Etnier set about having the little fish covered under it.
Thus was born the case Hill v. TVA, filed in U.S. District Court in
Knoxville. Plater represented Hill, and Knoxville attorney Herb Sanger
In 1976, Judge Robert Taylor decided that the well-being of a 3-inch
fish was not going to prevent the construction of a $116 million TVA dam
and ruled against the plaintiffs. This decision was appealed to the U.S.
6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed Taylor's ruling and halted
work on the dam, which was about 85 percent complete, according to
published reports at the time.
TVA then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Plater argued the case
against the dam, and Griffin Bell, then U.S. Attorney General under
President Jimmy Carter, represented TVA.
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on April 18, 1978, and then, in a
6-3 decision on June 15 of that year, affirmed the appellate court and
said that the Endangered Species Act was clear that the snail darter's
habitat could not be destroyed.
No dam. Plater and the opponents had won.
Political wrangling permeated the case from the beginning, with TVA
trying to have the darters relocated elsewhere so the dam could be
finished and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declining on grounds
that the action might jeopardize the fish.
In the meantime, both Tennessee senators, Howard Baker and Jim Sasser,
and the House member representing the district, the now-deceased John J.
Duncan Sr., were lobbying and maneuvering to get the dam finished. They
argued for an exemption from the Endangered Species Act for the Tellico
Following the Supreme Court ruling, Sasser pushed through an amendment
to a Senate appropriations bill, ordering the dam completed.
Attempts to get comment from Bell, Baker, Sasser and Sanger for this
article were unsuccessful.
Quoting the amendment, "Notwithstanding any provision of law to the
contrary, the following projects will be completed," Plater said Tellico
Dam was first on the list.
That circumvented the Supreme Court decision, and the dam was completed.
On Nov. 29, 1979, the dam's gates closed and the river was impounded.
Winners and losers
So, who were the winners?
Plater and Hill say, without hesitation, dam opponents won the court
"The act says the fish wins," Hill said flatly.
But the valley residents still lost their homes. TVA built its dam. The
politicians did an end-run around an act they had helped pass.
Cherokee tribal lands, which Plater said were the site of 10,000 years
of continuous human habitation, ended up underwater.
Developers reaped a bucketful of money selling land around the lake to
businesses and well-heeled retirees.
And the snail darter is alive and well in several other streams where it
It is a complex saga that can still raise both the tenor and pitch in
the voices of Hill and Plater.
For Etnier, not so much. He said the dam was built "for no positive
economic value. It's obviously a boondoggle." But unlike the lawyers, he
does not consider it a defining point in his career.
But he does say that the case showed that a monolithic power like TVA
could be challenged. And ultimately, he said, it probably led TVA to
abandon plans for a dam on the Duck River at Columbia, Tenn., which was
"even more valuable biologically than the Little T."
All three say they would fight the same fight again, although Hill said
he "could have played the political game harder."
Plater said he also would work harder to shape public perception to
prevent the plaintiffs from being characterized as a bunch of
Plater also has worked on other large cases, including the Exxon Valdez
oil spill and "the Woburn toxics case that was chronicled in the book
and movie 'A Civil Action.' "
But it is the darter case, which Plater told the Supreme Court was
"about human beings not extinguishing any of the life forms God
created," that "frames me and will be on my tombstone."