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Voices of Water: Anna George

Tennessee's Emory River: Pristine to Polluted in 30 Miles

20100923 Kingston 1840Dr. Anna George (left), Director of the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Alexandra Cousteau electroshock along the Emory River to study its fish populations

Dr. Anna George, Director of the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute:

There is nothing more eloquent in Nature than a mountain stream. Its banks are luxuriantly peopled with rare and lovely flowers, and overarching trees, making one of Nature's coolest and most hospitable places.  - John Muir

On September 12, 1867, John Muir crossed the Emory River on his thousand mile walk to the Gulf of Mexico.  The Emory River, a tributary of the Clinch River in northeast Tennessee, is a small watershed of 872 square miles drained by 1283 miles of streams.  Like Muir's journey, the waters of the Emory eventually end up in the Gulf, but after meandering westward through the Clinch, Tennessee, Ohio, and Mississippi rivers, passing by Chattanooga, Memphis and New Orleans on their journey.  

Nearly 150 years later, Alexandra Cousteau and her Expedition Blue Planet team from National Geographic stopped by the Emory River on their journey.  We started our morning just two miles upstream from its mouth where the nation's largest industrial spill occurred.  In December 2008, over one billion gallons of coal ash spilled from an adjacent settling pond.

We surveyed the fish community at two nearby sites as part of our examination of the long-term impacts of this spill.  In one sample, we saw a shad that was covered with a fungus infection and a smallmouth buffalo with caudal fin damage.  While the spill has impacted the fish health and diversity in this reach, we hope that these resilient animals will be able to recover soon.

In the afternoon, we headed to one of my favorite spots in Tennessee in the upper reaches of the Emory River at Nemo Bridge.  We all jumped into the water to cool off, and then started snorkeling to look at the animals that depend on this clear, fast-flowing mountain stream.  In four hours there, we saw over 30 species of fish, and found two darters that hadn't been documented that far upstream before!  While we poked around for a hellbender, the country's largest salamander, we never managed to see one.  I guess we had to leave a reason for Alexandra to come back!