How to Kill a Valley

Howard Baker
Howard Baker; drawing by David Levine

A last-minute amendment insinuated into an Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act last June authorized the Tennessee Valley Authority to complete the Tellico Dam near Knoxville “notwithstanding the Endangered Species Act or any other law.” This high-handed and very dangerous precedent is thought to be the first such rider ever to put an unfinished federal construction project beyond all legal restraint. On September 25, President Carter failed to veto HR4388 as he had been urged to do by members of his own cabinet. One of the oldest and most evil-smelling public works project in the country thus achieved through procedural tricks and political blackmail what it had never been able to win in a fair hearing. On November 29, when the flood gates were lowered, a small perch called the snail darter, whose last natural habitat was the last free-flowing stretch of the Little Tennessee River, became the first living creature ever consigned willfully into oblivion.

Though only one of many urgent reasons why the Tellico Dam should never have been started, this little fish was taken up by the press and television to the virtual exclusion of more fundamental issues. Even philosophical defenders of the darter became troubled by the trivialized controversy as set out by the dam’s advocates and parroted in newspapers and on TV. Did the perpetuation of a “useless” three-inch “min-now” justify the waste and loss of energy that would result from abandoning a nearly completed $120-million hydroelectric dam? As I discovered in early November, when I went down to the Little Tennessee River to have a look at the historic valley before it disappeared, this presentation of the case was false from beginning to end.

The TVA and its long-time supporters, led by local politicians and developers, big corporations, and labor unions, claimed that Tellico Lake—which would be created by the dam—was needed for recreation, improved navigation, and flood control. Much of the shoreline of the lake, they said, would be used for industrial development, providing jobs in this depressed pocket of western Appalachia, and the dam would make a vital contribution to hydroelectric energy production in the region. In fact, twenty-four major dams and lakes already exist within sixty miles of Tellico, and most of them have large stretches of undeveloped shores. The claims that the dam will improve recreation, navigation, and flood control turn out to be hollow, and as for the energy contribution, this dam contains no electric generator of any kind; it will produce no more than twenty-three megawatts (out of a current TVA regional capacity of 27,000) by means of a diversion canal through the nearby Ft. Loudoun Dam on the Tennessee River.

How many Americans, I wonder, are even aware that the Tellico is a small dam in a 38,000-acre project and that most of the $110-million that allegedly would be “wasted” if it is not completed was actually spent…

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