The Little River
Location: The Little River flows through the cities of Townsend, Alcoa, and Maryville and portions of Blount, Knox, and Sevier counties in the state of Tennessee. It drains a 380-square-mile area leading from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the lower part of Fort Loudoun Reservoir.
Approximate length, from headwaters to mouth: 60 miles
Major tributaries: The Middle Prong and Ellejoy, Pistol, Hesse, Crooked, Short, Nails, Reed, and Stock creeks
Description of land through which it flows: The river originates from the headwaters in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park where the terrain is remote, rugged, and steep. Following the main highway closely, the river flows through the gateway city of Townsend. The terrain begins to flatten out beyond Townsend, where land use is largely agricultural and suburban in nature, and the river becomes somewhat more difficult to access by road.
Characterization of aquatic habitat/biodiversity: For a river its size, the Little River is considered to have one of the most diverse fish populations in the southeastern United States, thanks to its clean water. In fact, while several intolerant fish species have been eliminated from most other rivers in the eastern part of the Tennessee Valley, the Little River still supports the same fish that were there many years ago.
Characterization of ecological health: The upper reaches of the Little River, in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, are in excellent condition — considered among the best in East Tennessee. However, the quality of the river slowly degrades with increasing distance from the Park due to agricultural and development practices, urban runoff, and failing septic tanks.
Recent monitoring shows an improvement in the health of the river. In 1998, bacteria concentrations exceeded state standards at six of seven Little River sites. The same sites were sampled again in 2003. Bacteria concentrations had decreased by at least 40 percent at each site, and state standards were exceeded at only two of the seven sites.
Studies conducted in 2003 and 2004 also show significant improvements in tributaries to the Little River, including eight streams currently included on the State of Tennessee’s list of impaired waters due to high bacteria, sediment, and/or nutrient concentrations.
Major threats to water quality: Most of the Little River watershed is located in Blount County, which is experiencing unprecedented growth and development. Rapid population growth and the resulting expanding economy will place increasing pressure on the river. For this reason, the State of Tennessee has classified the Little River as threatened. This threatened designation means that if current trends continue the Little River will be impaired in the near future.
Known contaminants of concern: High levels of PCBs in a short stretch of the lower Little River (below Rockford Mill Dam) have resulted in a fish consumption advisory.
Primary recreational uses: Canoeing, fishing, kayaking, tubing, swimming, and sightseeing are favorite activities. Thousands of residents and visitors each year enjoy the “Y”–– a popular recreation area just inside the National Park boundary.
Quality of sport fishery: Anglers enjoy high-quality trout fishing in the Smokies, and the smallmouth/sunfish fishery in the lower section of the river is excellent.
Public access areas: There are lots of public access areas in the Smokies and several gravel pull-offs along the roadside in the Townsend area for picnicking and river access. In the lower sections of the river, public access is minimal.
Economic uses of the river: The Little River supplies drinking water to 100,000 residents in Blount County and adds millions of dollars in recreational tourism to the local economy.
For more information: To learn more about the Little River and the partners working to improve it, or to become involved, contact TVA’s Little Tennessee Watershed Team at 865-632-1308.