The “snail darter”, Percina tanasi, blends with the sand grains and pebbles of cool clear water bottoms.  Slower-warmer-cloudy water behind dams is deadly habitat for darters, trout, and many other animals.  Internet photo

The “snail darter”, Percina tanasi, blends with the sand grains and pebbles of cool clear water bottoms. Slower-warmer-cloudy water behind dams is deadly habitat for darters, trout, and many other animals.
Internet photo

    Water Closet for 1-24-14 Tellico

Four decades ago young lawyers, an ichthyologist, farmers, fishermen, and conservationists recruited a tiny fish in their battle against the mighty Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).  The diminutive David was unknown; the government’s famous Goliath, long resting on its electricity producing laurels, was looking for another project.  Its leaders came up with plans to build yet another dam.  They’d famously, infamously to many, built dozens in the Tennessee River and its tributaries during President Franklin Roosevelt’s long reign.  Most organizations and individuals who asked about the need for the planned new Tellico Dam across the Little Tennessee were dissatisfied with the arrogant authority’s vague answers.  TVA seemed to want to build a dam for the purpose of building a dam.

This saga, so much in the news in the 1970s, was brought back to us last week when Stream Teamer, Ed Roman, gave us a fine article in his Fall 2013  issue of Boston College Magazine entitled “Fish Tale” by Zygmunt J. B. Plater.  Plater was one of the then young lawyers who hooked the endangered “snail darter”1 as a plaintiff in a suit against the dam.

The darter’s beautiful habitat was the cool clear water coming down from the Great Smokey Mountains in the southern Appalachians.  Before 1830 it had been in the heart of Cherokee land.  The colonists in Georgia and the Carolinas wanting more land were illegally pushing on west into the mountains and beyond.  The Cherokees and other tribes were in their way.  President Andrew Jackson cruelly ordered the Indians out.  You’ve no doubt heard of the “Trail of Tears” about how the Indians struggled and died on their way to poorer land granted them in distant Oklahoma Territory.

Quickly the colonists moved in and took over the rich bottom lands of the Tennessee River and its branches.  A century later under another strong charismatic president, the TVA invaded.   Plater includes in his article a terrific 1970 aerial photo by Dean Stone of the section of the Little Tennessee River threatened by the planned dam.  It struck one Old Closeteer as had Grant Wood’s pastoral paintings he was shown as a child.  The blue river flows in meanders down through the greenest of green crop and pasture lands.  Along the river and in groves here and there are pretty stands of mature hardwoods.  The bottom lands stretch out to both margins and to a line of blue sky in the top of the photo.  The fishermen and farmers must have thought this their Shangri-La.   How the imagination enhances a beautiful picture as we combine what we’ve heard with what is seen.  We know the darters unseen were eating snails on the clean pebbly river bottom, also unseen.  The ichthyologist described the pristine bottom where he had excitedly caught a new species.  The TVA envisioned the river becoming a lake with recreational boats, surrounded by small cities and industries; not the thirty three miles of sluggish, algae clouded, water that it became after the dam.  Even rivers are endangered and should be on lists of habitats to be protected.

In 1973 congress passed, and President Nixon signed, the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  The desperate champions of the Little Tennessee River then asked the Department of Interior to put the newly found snail darter on the endangered species list.  Developers including government agencies have to show that their projects won’t lead to species extinction through habitat degradation.  TVA then under Interior fought the request with its usual arrogance, which caused infuriated Interior officials, no champions of the darter, to add it to the list.  TVA appealed to the courts and the case rose to the Supreme Court. TVA asked that the darter be an exception to the ESA.  The court said it could not be exempted under the wording of the Act thus keeping it on the list.  Rage followed throughout the land and in the press.  Even venerable reporter Walter Cronkite called the ruling “frivolous”.  You can imagine the words used by others.  They thought endangered species were all big like polar bears, whooping cranes, blue whales, and bison, not a fish one fourth the size of a piece of sushi.  Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee, who had voted for the ESA, turned against his native fish and introduced an amendment to a bill to have the darter removed from the ESA’s list.  He, a powerful and popular senate leader, and other pork barrelers wanted that planned federal money flowing into their state undammed.  By fairly close votes, the congress turned against the darter.  President Jimmy Carter signed the law and the darter came off the list.  That was the end of the fight against the Tellico Dam.  Its gate soon came down, the water behind it rose.  Fortunately for the darter, some had been transferred to other still flowing rivers where so far they seem to be holding their own.

Lively debates have raged throughout the country since the darter held up a large public project for many years.  Later spotted owl2 populations were found to be rapidly declining in the West.   Protection of their habitats slowed a whole industry by keeping timber barons out of certain old-growth forests.  In Middleton and Boxford, developments have been significantly reduced by tiny salamanders, then on the Massachusetts endangered species list, being found and their habitats protected3.  We are anxiously waiting for the habitat of one of the dragonflies on the list to affect a project.  Imagine the buzz that will cause.  These contemplations have led to some profound questions.  During the recent Wall Street shenanigans, the government decided certain financial institutions “are too big to fail”.  Many were bailed out.  Economists are now saying the saved are even larger.  We on the environmental side ask the question, “When are the habitats of smaller animals on the list too small to be saved?”  It might seem that when we are considering the fate of fellow organisms, many on earth much longer than our species that we should spend lots of time debating such questions.

One wag on the stream team often threatens to do more.  He jokingly threatens to raise endangered beetles and dragon flies to be released on sites where planned development threatens habitat.

Percina tanasi

Strix occidentalis 

3  The “blue-spotted salamander”  Ambystoma laterale was on the endangered list when the development was being reviewed by the Middleton Conservation Commission.  Their eggs were found in three vernal pools over 1000-feet from the planned clearing for development.  The project was reduced from 12 to 8 large houses.  This species is no longer listed.




Precipitation Data* for Month of: Oct Nov Dec Jan
30 Year Normal (1981 – 2010) Inches 4.40 4.55 4.12 3.40
 2013 – 14  Central Watershed Actual 1.10 3.35 5.30 4.10 as of 1/21**

Ipswich R. Flow Rate (S. Middleton USGS Gage) in Cubic Feet/ Second (CFS):

For Jan 21, 2014:   Normal . . . 51 CFS           Current Rate . . . 32 CFS


*Danvers Water Filtration Plant, Lake Street, Middleton is the source for actual precipitation data thru Dec. Normals data is from the National Climatic Data Center.

**Updated Jan precipitation data is from MST gage.

THE WATER CLOSET is provided by the Middleton Stream Team: or <> or (978) 777-4584