Citico Creek, Tennessee
Weaving through the rolling hills of Tennessee, Citico Creek is a pristine waterway that originates in the Citico Wilderness of the Cherokee National Forest. As one of the major tributaries to the Little Tennessee River, Citico Creek provides important habitat to many aquatic organisms that contribute to the high diversity of the Little Tennessee, including 100 species of native fish, 10 species of native mussels and 12 species of native crayfish. In 1966, the small (7-foot high by 35-foot long) Upper Citico Creek Dam was constructed on a remote section of the river within the Indian Boundary Reservoir, compromising the health of the ecosystem.
Dams are notorious for restricting fish and other organisms from moving upstream, so it was ironic that the dam built on the Citico was meant to protect the native fish found in the creek. In this case, upstream of Citico Creek there is a small reservoir that is stocked with nonnative species including green sunfish, bream and creek chubs. Community members became concerned that the stocked fish would enter Citico Creek and compete with native species. However, years after the construction of the dam, a study revealed that these stocked fish could not survive in the cold waters of the Citico.
Not only did the dam restrict fish from moving downstream, but it also restricted 52 species of native fish from accessing viable upstream habitat and spawning grounds, including three federally endangered species: the Citico darter, the smoky madtom and the yellowfin madtom. The dam also transformed benthic habitat and restricted the movement of sediment and rocks in the stream bed, degrading and destroying habitat.
With the understanding that the dam was serving no useful purpose and only causing harm to the ecosystem, a partnership was formed between American Rivers, Cherokee National Forest and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to remove the dam and restore the creek. In October 2015, an excavator with a jackhammer mounted on its front was poised above the dam. From the time that the jackhammer took its first blow to the dam, it was just 24 more hours until the last pieces of concrete had been chipped away.
Dam Removal Benefits
- Increased genetic resilience of fish that were previously restricted to upstream or downstream populations
- Trout historical habitat reconnected throughout the upper and lower sections of Citico Creek
- Improved public safety and recreation
- Improved river and ecosystem health
This swift removal was the outcome of a unique partnership, where a crew from the U.S. Forest Service assisted with the dam removal design and U.S. Fish and Wildlife completed the construction, in order to reduce costs and take advantage of existing resources among partner groups. Native fish and other organisms now have full access to habitat provided within Citico Creek, and the threat to the endangered species found in the creek has been eliminated.