Beneath the surface of Tellico Lake, farmhouses disintegrate.

Like sunken tombstones, they are the last testament to a previous agricultural community and an extensive legal battle that fought to keep it there.

Almost 40 years have passed since the Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill case, a case that began in East Tennessee and eventually ascended to the Supreme Court.

Thursday evening, former UT law professor Zygmunt Plater – now a professor at Boston College of Law – spoke at Union Avenue Books to promote his new book, "Snail Darter and the Dam," which aims to dispel many misconceptions surrounding the case.

"I needed to write the book," Plater said. "They always get the story wrong that a bunch of Tennesseans used a stupid little fish to halt a gigantic TVA hydroelectric dam."

The Tellico Dam was under construction when former UT biology professor David A. Etnier discovered a snail darter in the Little Tennessee River. The rare fish would soon be documented as a member of an endangered species.

"I just put my hands around it and lifted it out of the water," Etnier said. "And I thought, 'My God, this is a darter of the subgenus Imostoma of the genus Percina, and nobody has ever seen it before.'"

Plater recalled a student asking if Etnier's find was enough for a 10-page term paper. Ultimately, the case generated more than 10,000 pages from the Supreme Court, the White House and three government agencies.

With limited funds, Plater began to work closely with the farmers and trout fishermen who were to be evicted for dam construction. Plater recalled beginning with only $29.

Despite a lack of financial support, Plater proceeded with a dedicated team of friends and colleagues to help wherever possible.

"It didn't take a great lawyer to win the case," Plater said. "It took a great case backed up by great people."

TVA v. Hill was a loss for Plater in circuit court.

In 1978 though, the case reached the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals who ruled in Plater's favor. With another appeal, the case found itself before the Supreme Court.

TVA v. Hill was the first court case to interpret the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the very legislation enabling Plater to win the case.

However, Plater's victory was short-lived.

Just years later, the Endangered Species Act was revised, and TVA was able to complete dam construction. Even so, Plater recalls the case without regret.

"In no other country in the world could a small group of people so lacking in power and influence have challenged a politically powerful mistake so long and so far through so many branches of national government," Plater said. "And we came so close to winning."

Since completion of Tellico Dam, the snail darter has moved off the Endangered Species List and is now listed as "threatened." Other populations of snail darters have been discovered in a few rivers across the state.

"At some point, we're all going to turn our toes up to the daisies and die," Plater said. "At that point, you're going to want to look back and think that you made a difference. And it doesn't have to be changing the whole world, but just changing one little thing that wouldn't have happened if you didn't push, that's worthy of a lifetime."