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TVA River Neighbors
MAY 2005


The Little River:  A “many-faceted jewel”

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  Volunteers plant native trees and shrubs along a tributary to the Little River.  

The Tennessee Valley is blessed with a diversity of outstanding water resources, but the Little River in East Tennessee holds a special place in Tom McDonough’s heart.

McDonough, a member of TVA’s Little Tennessee Watershed Team, has spent the last seven years working with others in the Little River watershed to protect this many-faceted jewel.

The Little River is unique in several respects, according to McDonough. “For its size, it has one of the most diverse fish populations in the southeastern U.S. The upper reaches of the river, deep inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, are in excellent ecological condition, which contributes to a healthy sport fishery. And, with plenty of access areas, it’s a real recreational asset — whether you like to go tubing, canoeing, kayaking, swimming, picnicking, or just enjoy the incredible scenic beauty.”

The river also has a fascinating cultural history, says McDonough. “Artifacts suggest that large Native American villages once thrived along its banks. In the late 18th and early 19th century, the river’s freshwater mussels were used to make buttons for the garment industry. Extensive logging began in the early 1900s when the Little River Railroad and Lumber Company began operations in the watershed. From tanneries to a small hydroelectric dam to a tourist destination at Kinzel Springs, the Little River saw a wide variety of human activities, some of which had an impact on water quality.

McDonough is optimistic about the river’s future. “Several efforts are under way to ensure that the rapid development occurring in the watershed is sustainable — that it doesn’t jeopardize the water resources necessary for future growth. Best of all, there are a lot of people involved who are committed to doing what needs to be done to protect and improve the watershed over the long term.”

image of the little riverMcDonough gives a lot of the credit for the progress that has been made in protecting the Little River in recent years to two groups: the Little River Water Quality Forum and the Little River Watershed Association.

The Little River Water Quality Forum is made up of 21 agencies and organizations that meet quarterly to plan and coordinate water quality improvement and protection initiatives. TVA helped to establish the Forum and continues to assist the group with data analysis and modeling to identify potential pollution sources and predict how land-use changes will impact water quality.

The Little River Watershed Association is composed of community volunteers. It conducts a wide variety of educational, water quality improvement, and cleanup activities each year and sponsors a variety of community events, including a native plant giveaway, Little River Awareness Day, and a multimedia kiosk.

Efforts to enhance the watershed gained momentum recently with the kickoff of the “Little River, Big Future” project — a bottom-up planning process aimed at involving local residents in developing a strategy to improve water quality and protect local natural resources while the area grows. Several organizations are involved in the project, including the Community Partnership Center at the University of Tennessee, the Little River Watershed Association, TVA, the ALCOA Foundation, and a number of state and local government agencies. A meeting was held May 17 at Heritage High School to present the results of a series of public input sessions. For more information, visit the project web site at

The Blount County Soil Conservation District and the Natural Resources Conservation Service also are playing an important role in protecting the Little River watershed, says McDonough. “Although the area is undergoing rapid development, agriculture is still the dominant land use. Both agencies assist farmers throughout the Little River watershed by providing technical and financial assistance to install conservation practices, including livestock exclusion, alternative watering sources, and riparian buffers.” An area of particular focus has been farmland around Ellejoy Creek, where many conservation practices have been voluntarily installed by farmers seeking to increase farm productivity while improving water quality. TVA provided funding for model farm demonstration projects showcasing conservation practices that are being adopted by many farmers throughout the watershed.

View a profile of the Little River, including information about its ecological health, sport fish populations, recreational resources, and more.

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