© Bruce McNitt/Panoramic Images (Virginia)

Clinch River Valley

Nestled amid the Appalachian Mountains of southwestern Virginia and adjacent northeastern Tennessee lies the Clinch Valley, the nation’s leading hot spot for imperiled aquatic organisms. The Clinch River is the only undammed headwater of the Tennessee River basin, which in turn is the nation’s most biologically diverse drainage system. 

The surface waters of the Clinch run rich indeed: they are home to at least 29 rare mussels and 19 rare fish. Underground, the region’s limestone bedrock is honeycombed by more than a thousand caves and uncounted underground springs and streams. This little-known world is filled with a menagerie of rare beetles, isopods, and other subterranean insects. These underground realms have yielded more than 30 species new to science in just the past few years.

The Clinch Valley is largely rural and sparsely populated. Most residents make their living directly from the land, either mining coal, harvesting timber, grazing cattle, or planting crops. These rural lifestyles have maintained much of the region in a relatively natural state, and more than two-thirds of the Clinch Valley remains forested. 

But the forested hills mask a history of ecologically unsound land use practices that have degraded the legendary quality of the region’s waterways. Virtually anything released in the valley flows downhill into the streams and rivers. Among the greatest threats to the valley’s extraordinary aquatic life are 

  • heavy metals leaching from abandoned coal mines, 
  • sediment eroding from cut-over slopes, and 
  • nutrients released by streamside-grazing cattle. 

These and other threats have already taken a toll on the region’s extraordinary biological richness. Where once there were 60 kinds of freshwater mussels, only about 40 remain.

Clinch River Valley Stories

  • Appalachian Monkeyface Pearly Mussel

    The Appalachian Monkeyface Pearly Mussel is an imperiled bivalve whose remnant populations in Virginia remain in the Clinch and Powell rivers.

    Read More

  • Eastern Hellbender

    Because of its preference for clean streams and rivers, the eastern hellbender serves as an effective indicator of stream health, with the presence of young and adults synonymous with good water quality.

    Read More

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