Press Release | December 14, 2021

Conservation groups intervene in permit case to protect Tennessee’s Duck River from unchecked water withdrawals

The proposed withdrawals could lead to an additional 19 million gallons of water being pumped from the Duck River each day

MARSHALL COUNTY, Tenn. — Represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, The Nature Conservancy and Tennessee Wildlife Federation are intervening in a permitting case to support the state’s effort to protect the Duck River from proposed water withdrawals, which would impact the health and abundance of one of the country’s most unique waterways. 

The Duck River is North America’s most biologically diverse freshwater river and is the backbone of the region’s outdoor recreation economy, supporting an estimated 150,000 anglers, kayakers, canoers, and boaters annually. However, this natural wonder is now threatened by the impacts of Middle Tennessee’s rapid growth

To keep up with the region’s booming growth, several water utilities plan to significantly increase the amount of water they withdraw from the Duck River. These combined increases could lead to an additional 19.7 million gallons of water being pumped from the Duck River each day – representing a 30 percent increase from the current amount pumped from the river. Such water consumption, if poorly managed, could damage or destroy river wildlife during periods of low water flows and drought.

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation recently issued a permit to one of these utilities – the Marshall County Board of Public Utilities (MCBPU). To protect endangered and threatened species that live downstream from the proposed water intake, state officials included flow restrictions in the permit. Those restrictions limit the amount of water a facility can withdraw during times of low flow or drought in order to protect the river’s incredible wildlife. 

However, local water utilities have asked to remove protective flow restrictions from the MCBPU permit. That effort, if successful, will likely negatively impact the river’s wildlife habitat and could hamper the state’s ability to include similar safeguards in future withdrawal permits. Eliminating flow restrictions would put vulnerable wildlife at elevated risk during times of drought.

The Nature Conservancy and Tennessee Wildlife Federation, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, are intervening in the permit appeal in order to defend the state’s use of reasonable flow restrictions in its water withdrawal permits.

The Duck River is a crown jewel of the Tennessee river system. It is teeming with wildlife and cherished by many who enjoy paddling, fishing, and natural solitude. The Duck River deserves our protection and stewardship, particularly during times of water scarcity or drought, and we look forward to collaborating with the local water utilities and others as we work toward protective solutions.

SELC Senior Attorney George Nolan

“A healthy and abundant Duck River is fundamental to the significant outdoor recreation economy of this area, and to the fish and wildlife people enjoy. We understand that Marshall County needs reliable water, and we support that need. What we seek in this case is to find collaborative solutions with these communities that can provide long-term water supply solutions throughout the region. Such an approach can be more economical, more reliable and more sustainable,” said Mike Butler, CEO of Tennessee Wildlife Federation.

The Duck River flows through six Middle Tennessee counties, and its basin provides habitat for more aquatic life than found in all of Europe’s rivers combined. The waterway’s unparalleled biodiversity includes 151 fish species, 22 aquatic snail species and 60 mussel species, 20 of which are listed as threatened or endangered. The waterway also supports a thriving sport fishery, including small mouth bass, rock bass, catfish, and several varieties of pan fish.

“There is no question the Duck River is going to face increased freshwater demands in the coming decades. The big question is – how do we make sure water withdrawals meet the needs of people and nature?” said Terry Cook, State Director for The Nature Conservancy in Tennessee. “It is important to us that permit decisions consider the bigger picture throughout the river basin and lay out a clear set of guidelines for how to withdraw water in a way that maintains the health of the river and that is sustainable over time.” 

Press Contacts

Eric Hilt

Communications Manager (TN)

Phone: 615-921-9470
Email: ehilt@selctn.org