A low dam extends from the camera away across a muddy river, with driftwood piled up on the upstream side of the dam.
Harms Mill Dam Harms Mill Dam is located along Tennessee's Elk River. © TNC/Rob Bullard

Stories in Tennessee

Rethinking Dams

Many of Tennessee's dams don't fulfill their original purpose, and even cause harm.

Head shot of a man with a blue Nature Conservancy shirt.
Rob Bullard Program Director, Tennessee/Cumberland Rivers


As summer comes to a close, I am wondering how many more of us spent more time than usual—in this age of COVID—kayaking, fishing, swimming or even scuba diving in one of Tennessee’s many rivers. These rivers harbor some of the most diverse aquatic ecosystems in the nation. They support local economies and livelihoods. They generate power, sustain thirsty cities and crops, and fuel a booming outdoor tourism industry. Rivers are key to what makes Tennessee special.

Two people guide a canoe through muddy water.
Hatchie River This West Tennessee river is the longest naturally meandering river remaining in the lower Mississippi River Valley. © Paul Kingsbury

Threats from Obsolete Dams

Some of Tennessee’s rivers are in peril, in some cases due to obsolete and even dangerous dams and other barriers that hinder them from providing important services to people and nature. Many dams no longer serve their original purpose, like powering mills, and can be a serious hindrance for three primary reasons:

  • They jeopardize safety, including tragic drownings that happen each year when people get too close or underestimate their power.
  • They disrupt the natural flow of a river and fragment important habitat for numerous aquatic species.
  • They hinder recreational access to portions of a river where people could otherwise enjoy the water and surrounding nature.
A large digger that has pushed concrete and earth from a fam aside to allow water to rush past.
Roaring River A power shovel tears away an old deteriorating dam on Tennessee's Roaring River. © Paul Kingsbury

Prioritizing Dam Removal Projects

TNC is working strategically with partners to inventory, prioritize and when appropriate, systematically remove dams that no longer serve a useful purpose and pose a threat to human and river health. So far, TNC has inventoried almost 2,000 dams around the state. Of those, we prioritized the top 10 most likely to make the biggest impact with regard to safety, habitat connectivity and recreation.

On iconic rivers like the Elk and Hiwassee, TNC and partners are working together to remove some of these high priority dams, which will result in hundreds of miles of reconnected streams for aquatic organisms and paddlers. The successful removal of the Roaring River in 2017 was the largest in Tennessee history executed for restoration purposes in partnership with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation and the Southeast Aquatic Resources Partnership. TNC and partners hope for similar results on future dam removal projects.

A river meanders past a small beach and through a forest.
Roaring River The Roaring River spreads out after the removal of an old, failing dam. © The Nature Conservancy/Rob Bullard

When it comes to these projects, here’s what we know. Removing a dam can take two years or more and require between $50,000 and $500,000 to complete from “soup to nuts.” With continued support, we hope to establish a project pipeline that leverages partnerships and financial resources in order remove between three and five of these outdated dams over the next five years to achieve the highest possible conservation outcomes.

When healthy, our rivers nourish our bodies, souls and even our pocketbooks. But dams, levees and other man-made structures disrupt their natural functions. I look forward to reporting back on ways we are working to bring our rivers back to life in order to conserve nature and foster safer and healthier communities throughout Tennessee.

Head shot of a man with a blue Nature Conservancy shirt.

For more than a decade, Rob Bullard has worked for The Nature Conservancy—in Arlington, Virginia, as well as Colorado and Tennessee. A Tennessee native, Rob has a B.A. in Environmental Studies from the University of Tennessee and a J.D. from the University of Denver.