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Tellico Dam
Tellico Dam.jpg
Tellico Dam
Location Loudon County, Tennessee, United States
Coordinates 35°46′40″N 84°15′35″W / 35.777778°N 84.259722°W / 35.777778; -84.259722
Dam and spillways
Impounds Little Tennessee River
Height 129 ft (39 m)
Length 3,238 ft (987 m)
Total capacity 467,600 acre⋅ft (576,800 dam3)
Catchment area 2,627 sq mi (6,800 km2)
Surface area 14,200 acres (5,700 ha)

Tellico Dam is a dam built by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in Loudon County, Tennessee on the Little Tennessee River, just above the main stem of the Tennessee River. Completed in 1979, it impounds the Tellico Reservoir.

Construction of the Tellico Dam was controversial and marks a turning point in American attitudes toward dam construction. Until the 1960s and 1970s, few questioned the value of building a dam; dams were widely considered to represent progress and technological prowess. During the twentieth century, the United States built thousands of dams, often to generate hydroelectric power and provide flood control. By the 1950s, most of the best potential dam sites in the United States had been used, and it became increasingly difficult to justify new dams. Government agencies such as TVA, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Army Corps of Engineers continued to construct new dams, often at the behest of congressional representatives of related areas. In the 1970s, the era of dam-building ended. The Tellico Dam case illustrates the United States' changing attitudes toward dams and the environment, and was underway after passage of major environmental legislation. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2017.

The case started before the enactment of the Endangered Species Act. The construction of the dam was delayed by a group of farmers and an organization called the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). The EDF brought suit against TVA under NEPA, claiming that no environmental impact assessment had been made and that was against NEPA. However, once the TVA presented their environmental impact study, the courts decided to allow TVA to continue its operation and build the dam.

The situation changed after the enactment of the Endangered Species Act, after a small endangered fish, called the snail darter, was discovered on the Little Tennessee River. Dam opponents brought a lawsuit under the Endangered Species Act. By this point, the dam was well under construction and already over U$S 53 million had been spent on the construction work, requiring an injunction to stop the building from continuing and the flooding to happen. The case, Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill, 437 U.S. 153 (1978), reached the Supreme Court of the United States. In Hill, the Supreme Court affirmed, by a 6-3 vote, an injunction issued by a lower court to stop construction of the dam. Citing explicit wording of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to ensure that habitat for listed species is not disrupted, the Court said "it is clear that the TVA's proposed operation of the dam will have precisely the opposite effect, namely the eradication of an endangered species."

In the ensuing controversy over the snail darter, the Endangered Species Committee (also known as the "God Squad") was convened to issue a waiver of ESA protection of the snail darter. In a unanimous decision, the Committee refused to exempt the Tellico Dam project. Charles Schultze, the chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers, later cited economic assessments concluding that, despite the Tellico Dam being 95% complete, "if one takes just the cost of finishing it against the benefits and does it properly, it doesn't pay, which says something about the original design."

After a long battle, Congress finally exempted the Tellico Dam from the Endangered Species Act by passing an amendment in an unrelated bill. After the gates were closed on the dam, Tellico Lake (a reservoir) began to form in 1979. Remnant populations of the snail darter were later located in other streams.

Archeological surveys and salvage excavations were conducted in some areas because this area was known to have contained numerous 18th-century Overhill Cherokee towns. But the sites of Chota, Tanasi, Toqua, Tomotley, Citico, Mialoquo and Tuskegee were all flooded by development of the reservoir behind the dam. Some of these had been occupied by ancestors of the Cherokee for up to 1,000 years, based on the earthwork platform mounds built at their centers by people of the South Appalachian Mississippian culture. In their succeeding long occupancy, the Cherokee had built councilhouses on top of the mounds. In addition, other prehistoric sites, dating to as early as the Archaic period, were flooded. The contemporary port of Morganton was also submerged. The British colonial Fort Loudon was excavated; dirt was deposited to raise the site 17 feet (5 m), and the fort was rebuilt in its original location.

Tellico Dam does not produce any electricity. But, the Tellico Dam complex directs almost all of the flow of the Little Tennessee River into a canal that enters the Tennessee River on the upstream side of Fort Loudon Dam, adding 23 MW to the hydropower capacity at that dam.

Tellico Village and other lakefront residential communities have been built along the shores of Tellico Lake.

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