West Tennessee is a distinct ecological region, different from the mountainous areas in central and eastern Tennessee. West Tennessee's river bottomland forests provide important wetland habitats for migrating waterfowl and other birds. The region's rivers and streams harbor more than 130 species of fish adapted to life in the slow-moving, sandy waters.
West Tennessee is also the state’s most active agricultural region with productive fields of corn, cotton and soybeans. In the early 20th century and into the 1970s there was a push to drain many of the natural bottomlands in an effort to reduce flooding, mostly for the sake of farmlands.
Local drainage districts and federal agencies began channelizing many streams and rivers in the region--abandoning the original river course and digging a new channel that was wider and straighter--with the exception of the majority of the Hatchie River and Wolf River. The rationale was to move water off of the landscape as swiftly as possible.
As wetlands were drained, much land was cleared of timber and converted to cropland. Unfortunately, the region's sandy soils have eroded badly in these rivers and streams because of the channelization, often causing the flooding that channelization was meant to curtail.
Fighting the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico
Since 2010, The Nature Conservancy and the West Tennessee River Basin Authority (WTRBA) have collaborated on numerous projects to restore streams, rivers and floodplains in West Tennessee. Our work together reduces flooding, improves stream and floodplain habitats and improves water quality all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
This work is part of a bold strategy to help fix the "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico. In a multi-state effort, TNC aims to reduce the influx of nitrogen and phosphorus, also known as nutrients, into the Mississippi River by 20 percent. In doing so, we aim to shrink the size of the Gulf's dead zone from its current average of 5,220 square miles to 2,000.
Tennessee's role in nutrient loading in the Mississippi comes partly from agricultural runoff. Much of our stream and river work in West Tennessee is intended to reduce erosion and sedimentation, which reduces nutrient loading and improves habitats.