DUCKTOWN, Tenn. — After more than 150 years, fish are coming back to the Ocoee River.
Copper mining and acid production that started in the 1840s in Polk County killed the life in the Ocoee and its tributaries. But land and water reclamation have helped heal the river so fish can thrive.
“I’ve noticed and more fish over the years with numbers in the thousands,” said Jim Herrig, an aquatic biologist with the Cherokee National Forest.
Mr. Herrig said he and four Tennessee Valley Authority aquatic zoologists recently went snorkeling in the shallow pools near the Ocoee Whitewater Center and found 10 species of fish.
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And he said surveys are showing aquatic life from the Copper Basin to the lower Ocoee. The upper Ocoee has water releases only on weekends during the summer, but the river section near the whitewater center carries a slow-running stream from nearby Rough Creek.
Amy Wales, a TVA aquatic monitor, said surveyors have found 18 species of fish below the No. 2 powerhouse, including 16 species of native fish.
That contrasts with a 2001 survey when the aquatic monitors counted only five species, most nonnative, Ms. Wales said.
A 2006 count showed more than 20 species with many native varieties including spotted bass and sunfish, she said.
No one has stocked the rivers, she said. Biologists believe the native fish from healthier waters have made their way into the cleaned-up streams in the basin.
TVA zoologist Jeff Simmons said the monitors have seen increased diversity of key species, especially what he called indicator fish. Those fish, such as darters, are the most vulnerable to contamination or acidity, so their presence indicates healthy water, Mr. Simmons said.
Snail darters have been found in the lower sections of the Ocoee near its confluence with the Hiwassee River, and a rare gilt darter was seen last year below the No. 1 Dam, the monitors said.
Zoologist Kurt Lakin said species such as bass are multiplying in Parksville Lake in numbers great enough for some summer bass tournaments.
Mr. Herrig said the fish resurgence still has a long way to go compared with pre-mining days, when the river may have supported as many as 50 species.
But these days, when water flows are controlled for power generation, restoring the original species numbers isn’t possible, he said.
The aquatic experts give all the credit for the fish species’ increase to reclamation work being done by Glenn Springs Holdings, Inc.
The company’s Copper Basin project director, Frank Russell, said the London Mill and North Potato Creek water treatment plants are removing 96 percent of the acid and heavy metals from water running into the Ocoee River.
He said a project to divert water from Belltown Creek that will be complete in about a year should raise that rate to 98 percent.
Glenn Springs also has established wetlands to filter water and support habitat, planted millions of trees and restored grasslands to reduce runoff into the area’s streams.