A nearly decade long fight to keep the country’s most visited river from going dry may finally be in sight, as the Tennessee Valley Authority and state agencies have reached an agreement that would keep the Ocoee River flowing.
Hanging in the balance is Polk County’s economy, rafting and tourism here generates nearly $43 million each year. It’s a place where the average family makes just $38K a year. The Ocoee River provides the vital heartbeat that keeps this county alive, creating about 600 jobs and drawing 200,000 people who come to surf the class IV and V white water rapids in any given year.
It all started by accident. In 1910 three dams were constructed on the Ocoee. Dam number two generates power by diverting water into a flume, sending it downstream, where it then drops from the side of hillside into a generator terminal. That flume broke in the 1970's, forcing the Tennessee Valley Authority or TVA to allow water to flow freely on the river for the first time in decades.
By 1983, the class four and five rapids became such a popular attraction, that a contract was negotiated between the state and TVA mandating they release water for recreational use. That contract expires in 2019.
Releasing water into the Ocoee River means that the TVA can’t generate power. It’s estimated the power company loses about $1 million a year by releasing water into the river for recreational use. Because of that anyone who rafts on the river pays a fee of about $1.50 which helps compensate the TVA for money lost during dam releases.
“We have a unique situation because when they generate power the water is taken out of the river,” said Keith Jenkins who has owned Quest Expedition in Polk County for the last 34 years.
The pulse of the economy here, is the steady heartbeat of the nation's most visited river.
“It brings in all the tourism. A lot of the economic factors are driven from white water rafting,” Keith added.
Over the last five years though rafting companies and the state have been at odds with the TVA over a proposed new contract which would keep the river flowing. Initially the TVA reportedly wanted to increase the user fee to as much as $8 or $10 per person.
“A huge increase like that would've been detrimental to this business. Without a contract the river would go away. It would just dry up and go away,” Keith said about issue which he has work tirelessly to fix over the last five years.
Those who stand to lose the most in this fight for the Ocoee are the ones who make the least.
“We have no control over what happens here sometimes, it's hard to get our voice heard,” rafting guide Dave Jackson said.
As a 7th grade math teacher, Dave depends on this second job to keep his family's finances afloat.
“I know people who had to find other jobs because they were worried about the uncertainty,” he said about the ongoing push to reach a new contract.
What most people don't realize is that water is only flowing on the Ocoee 116 days out of the year. During the other 249 days the river is bone dry as water is diverted into the flume for power generation. The river bed is essentially dry when the dam isn’t releasing water, something that would’ve left rafting companies high and dry if no contract was reached.
“Some people want to say we’re at each other’s throats but that’s not the case,” says Scott Fiedler, spokesperson for the TVA.
Scott said that while initial proposals from the TVA suggested raising the user fee by as much as 800 percent that number has now dropped substantially. Last week, Governor Haslam signed a bill into law which would send $11 million to the TVA to help offset the cost of power generation money lost while the dam releases water for recreational use.
“All southeast Tennessee benefits from this river,” Republican state Senator Mike Bell said.
Bell played a major role at the Capitol in pushing lawmakers to pass a bill that would help keep the river funded and create a new agency which would streamline how funds are distributed to all parties involved with maintaining and running the river.
“It's a resource that belongs to Tennessee and to (have seen) that river go away would be sad," said Jenkins.