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Places We Protect

The Duck River

Tennessee

Duck River in Tennessee.
Duck River reflections Duck River in Tennessee. © Byron Jorjorian

The Duck River boasts North America’s richest variety of freshwater animals.

Overview

Description

Winding 269 miles through Middle Tennessee, the Duck River is one of the state's most scenic waterways. But there's much more here than meets the eye. Underneath the surface, the river teems with such an abundant variety of freshwater animal life that has earned its standing as North America’s most biologically diverse freshwater river and, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, one of three hot spots for fish and mussel diversity in the entire world. 

Access

OPEN TO THE PUBLIC

Location

269 Miles Through Middle Tennessee

Map with marker: The Duck River winds through Middle Tennessee, which includes Nashville.

Highlights

Canoeing, Fishing, Kayaking, Hiking

Explore our work in Tennessee

The front of a black kayak points forward on a river.
Duck River Kayaking is a popular activity on the Duck River in Tennessee. © Byron Jorjorian
A small stream flows away from a red farmhouse.
Tennessee Farm A stream winds through a farm field in Tennessee. © The Nature Conservancy/Cory Giles

Pulse of a River

Our rivers and streams function similarly to our circulatory systems, with small capillaries feeding into veins that feed into large arteries. Similar to our bodies, a blockage in one place can affect how everything works.

Valued Waters

In addition to almost unparalleled aquatic biodiversity, the Duck River serves as the backbone of the region’s outdoor recreation economy, supporting an estimated 150,000 anglers, kayakers, canoers and boaters. And it serves as the sole water source for 250,000 people living in Middle Tennessee.

The Duck’s location in the heart of Tennessee also places it within an area of explosive growth. According to the 2020 Census, more than half a million people moved into the state, many to the City of Nashville. In order to keep up with the region’s growth, several water utilities plan to increase by up to 30 percent the amount of water they withdraw from the river. In response, The Nature Conservancy is working with partners to ensure that any water withdrawals occur in ways that support the river’s incredible wildlife, including the many endangered and threatened species residing within these waters. 

A person holds several freshwater mussels in two hands.
Duck River Mussels While freshwater mussels have disappeared across much of the United States, the Duck River is one of only a few rivers in Tennessee where they have survived and are still thriving. © Byron Jorjorian

Conserving the Duck

TNC has worked on the Duck River since 1999 with local communities, businesses, and government agencies to ensure the long-term protection of the river's water quality and ecological integrity. Strategies pursued over the years include:

  • Working with farmers to implement conservation practices on agricultural land.
  • Protecting riparian areas with conservation easements.
  • Spearheading restoration efforts that reduce sedimentation in the watershed.
  • Promoting development of greenways and increased access to the river.

TNC has also long sought to help municipalities develop and utilize the best possible science to inform water management decisions to meet the needs of people and nature. The explosive development occurring in the upper Duck River watershed—combined with the river's extraordinary biological richness—elevates the importance of long-term, visionary regional water supply and drought management planning. 

It is important to us that decisions consider the bigger picture throughout the river basin, including how to withdraw water in a sustainable way that maintains the health of the river over time.

TNC Tennessee State Director

Spotlight on Species

The Duck River contains more species of fish than all of the rivers of Europe combined and has more fish varieties per mile than any other river in North America. It also supports 60 freshwater mussel species and 22 species of aquatic snails. Many of these species are federally listed as threatened or endangered and several occur nowhere else on earth.

The Duck’s freshwater mussel populations specifically represent some of the richest and most diverse in the world. Freshwater mussels are not only beautiful and fascinating creatures, but also play important roles in promoting water quality. Mussels are filter feeders, removing particulate matter from the water and cleaning up to 15 gallons a day! They also help stabilize stream channels. Since they are incredibly sensitive to changes in water quality, any decline in mussel populations often serve as an indicator of larger water quality issues in a watershed. In this way, they serve as the proverbial “canaries in the coal mine.” 

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