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Protecting our rivers of life: The Nolichucky


Rivers sustain life. They provide water to vegetation, creatures and humans. They serve as a means for transportation and provide energy that has been used to run mills and is transformed into electricity. They are a source of food and provide beautiful space for recreation and contemplation. They are an economic asset. Throughout recorded history, rivers have been the waters of life that allowed humankind to expand and cultivate civilizations.

The Nolichucky River, one of the best known and most loved in our region, threads its way for 115 miles from the Blue Ridge Mountains at the North Toe River in western North Carolina to Douglas Lake in Jefferson County, Tennessee. It’s also been a thread winding through the history of our area.  Prior to European colonization, Native American civilizations relied on and enjoyed the Nolichucky. Pioneers settled along its banks in the 1770s and today it nourishes farmland on its way through Unicoi, Washington, Greene, Cocke, Hamblen and Jefferson counties.

Scholars and area residents sometimes dispute the meaning of the name Nolichucky. According to Brett Riggs, Ph.D, a Sequoia Distinguished Scholar at Western Carolina University, in the documentary “Secrets of the Nolichucky,” it’s derived from the Cherokee word Na’na-tlu gun’yi, meaning Spruce-Tree Place. Local lore interprets it as Rushing Waters, Dangerous Waters, Black Swirling Water, River of Death and Man Killer. Some of these names undoubtedly came about because the sometimes turbulent force of the river can trap a person in horizontal swirls beneath the surface, drowning them.

Depending on the season and which stretch of the river you’re on, the Nolichucky can be wide or narrow, slow or rapid, placid or raging. It’s loved for wild, white water rides and a relaxing day of fishing. I love to take my grandchildren to play on its banks in David Crockett Birthplace State Park. Seeing anything through a child’s eyes reveals worlds often hidden to preoccupied adult minds. In turn, the river can often teach lessons difficult to explain in words to children but easily read by them in the illustrations of the living river.

I hope my grandchildren will be able to take their own children and grandchildren to the same banks someday. But I know that threats to the river could mean they won’t be able to fish or swim in it if adults who love it don’t watch over and protect it now. Among the concerns for its ecosystems, economic viability and beauty are sediment and chemical runoff from farming, chemical manufacturing and radioactivity.

Erwin Nuclear Fuels’ presence on the river began posing concerns many years ago and just last October, a scientist held a public forum in Jonesborough to announce he found enriched uranium in the Nolichucky. He said he traced it back to the NFS facility. Not long after, U.S. Nitrogen, a chemical company located on the Nolichucky in Greene County, disclosed to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation that water monitoring tests showed thallium in water in one of their holding ponds on the river. Thallium is a potentially deadly chemical but one not used by U.S. Nitrogen, which manufactures ammonium nitrate. It seems more likely, since thallium is used to make pesticides and weed killers, that it entered the water through rain runoff and was still present during the manufacturer’s required tests.

Just a few weeks ago, TDEC announced an extension of the fish consumption advisory it issued in August because mercury levels are higher than normal. Mercury is a toxic heavy metal that can cause illness, disability and death. The river has also been listed as impaired due to excessive sedimentation from agricultural runoff. 

What we can do to help protect this precious resource? A good starting point is to deepen our relationship with it. The saying, “out of sight, out of mind,” applies here. We fight harder for things we love. Visit it often to fish, paddle, float or simply enjoy a quiet day or family picnic on its banks.

Staying informed, though a challenge in our busy lives, is a good next step. The EPA, TDEC and a Cocke County-based organization called Clean Water Expected in Tennessee all have Facebook pages or newsletters to help residents stay informed about the state of rivers. State parks and fishing, wildlife and water sport organizations sometimes coordinate volunteer days to clean up rivers and creeks.

Nolichucky Wild and Scenic is an effort to protect a portion of the Nolichucky from Poplar, North Carolina to Erwin, Tennessee, by having it designated under the Wild and Scenic Act. The effort, supported by Tennessee District 4 Representative John B. Holsclaw, Jr., has gained momentum but needs a push from local residents to win the support of Congress. Find more information about the effort at

And remember, water is life.

What I hope to do is take what we have learned from our committee hearings and the recommendations we received from industry experts, and compile the proposals into a package of legislation that can pass in Congress and be signed into law, so that we can give all Americans better health outcomes and better experiences at a lower cost.