KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — A new project aims to study the health of a 60-mile river that runs through East Tennessee.

The Little River is an important part of the Smoky Mountains ecosystem. It runs down Clingman’s Dome and rolls down into the valley runs through Elkmont and into Blount County.

Maryville College recently announced a partnership with the city of Townsend to conduct the study. Over the next four years, students and faculty, along with help from the Arconic Foundation and the Little River Watershed Association, will work to establish a baseline of stream health and assess its long-term health, considering several factors like development, recreation, seasonal weather, and other potential contaminants according to a release from the college.

“They’re interested in helping maintain the quality of the water so it’s as close to what’s coming in as possible,” said Dr. Jay Clark, director of environmental and sustainability initiatives at Maryville College. “For a town as near as Townsend is to the crown jewel of the National Park Service and upstream of most of Blount County’s drinking water, I think that’s a lofty and admirable goal.”

“Safeguarding the health of the Little River is important to our citizens and neighbors in the greater Tuckaleechee Cove,” said Townsend Mayor Don Prater. “The river restores us, inspires our visitors and creates opportunities for our businesses.”

The researchers will track and measure pH values and watch out for the presence of pesticides, petroleum and other contaminants. They will also be researching the impact of acid rain on the Smokies, looking at the bacterial count, and depending on their findings, will evaluate city policies to make sure Townsend is doing everything it can to keep the Little River healthy.

“Our job is strictly to collect the data, to provide a scientifically sound assessment, and to report those results to Townsend,” Clark said. “We’re providing the information for them to potentially make policy, and we’re grateful to the city for choosing to work with us, as well as to the citizens of Townsend and the private landowners that are providing us access to the river so we can study it.”

The first water samples have already been collected and the final report is expected in October of 2027.

“This is an incredible opportunity to explore the opportunities my education and major provide me, to solidify my area of study for graduate school prospects, and to take part in a project that will benefit my community for years to come,” said Isabella Wright, a Biochemistry major and Environmental Science minor who lives in Townsend and graduated from Heritage High School.