Save the Ocoee River!
The Ocoee River is the nation’s most popular whitewater river with nearly 250,000 visits annually for rafting, canoeing, and kayaking. TVA is insisting on $1.8 million annually to return water to riverbed for recreation after the current contract for water releases expires in March 2019. Reimbursing TVA for lost power when water is returned to the riverbed is not a viable strategy for the continuation of whitewater recreation on the Ocoee River. TVA wants these costs to be paid by the customers of outfitters, which account for about 200,000 visits currently. Participation would decline as demand is depressed by higher fees. Today, the Ocoee offers one of the most affordable, high quality whitewater experiences in the nation, which will be lost if TVA gets its way.
TVA normally diverts water around the riverbed through the nation’s only wooden flume line used to generate hydroelectric power. Rafting and paddling would be eliminated by the fees required to pay TVA $1.8 million or more annually for lost power at the Ocoee No. 2 project. The State of Tennessee and the county also expect to collect fees for management. The combined fee burden will devastate rafting on the river and send the recreation experience for everyone down the tubes.
Why TVA Wants $1.8 million annually to pay for water releases.
TVA insists that rafting customers of outfitters pay strict reimbursement for lost power to cover the costs of water releases. TVA is the only utility allowed to collect these kinds of fees, since projects licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission are required to provide releases without reimbursement. For example, Progress Energy provides releases for 78 days annually on the Pigeon River in Cocke County, Tennessee.
How much power is lost?
The Ocoee No. 2 project has a plate capacity of 23 megawatts or about 6/10,000 of the TVA system capacity. The power benefits generated by the Ocoee No. 2 project are minor and not noticeable in TVA power rates. So, water releases for recreation for a relatively small portion of the overall annual power production at Ocoee No. 2 have no impact on power rates.
TVA admitted the benefits of the project were not noticeable in power rates in the 1979 Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for reconstruction of the Ocoee No. 2 project. The Ocoee No. 3 project produces more power, but 35 days of releases there are still inconsequential to power rates.
Releases do not impact lake levels in Lake Blue Ridge, which is also revealed in the 1979 EIS.
A Brief History of the Nation’s Most Popular Whitewater River
The Ocoee is the world’s most popular Class III – IV whitewater experience with over 250,000 annual visits for rafting, kayaking, open boating, and other paddlesports. Recreation is made possible as water from upstream power operations flows over a diversion dam at the Ocoee No. 2 project, which is adjacent to Highway 64 about 30 miles east of Cleveland, Tennessee.
The effort to secure recreation on the Ocoee before the last release is made in 2018 has already begun since a desirable outcome requires years of work and planning to lay the foundation for a political solution. Although the contract for water releases on the Ocoee River with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) doesn’t expire until 2019, federal legislation will be necessary to save the river and that can take years.
TVA is not subject to Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) licensing so unlike other hydro projects, the TVA Board of Directors sets the conditions and terms for Ocoee water releases which can only be influenced by federal legislation or political support for whitewater recreation. TVA wants strict reimbursement for the value of the power that is lost when water is returned to the riverbed for whitewater recreation, which would doom the Ocoee, because the costs would be levied at the highest cost for the power production. TVA has quoted $1.8 million per year for the first five years, which works out to $10 per person or more because higher prices would reduce demand for rafting. That payment amount would only be good for five years, creating a cycle of perpetual negotiations which river users could never win.
The ultimate solution for the Ocoee is for legislation to require the TVA board to designate the Ocoee No. 2 and Ocoee No. 3 projects as multiple-purpose projects to include whitewater recreation as a project purpose. This strategy would preclude the TVA’s argument that they are obligated to receive strict reimbursement for lost power.
The Water Resources Development Act of 1988 made downstream recreation a project purpose of eleven U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ projects throughout the eastern U.S., so the notion of whitewater recreation being a project purpose is not unheard of.
The Ocoee River starts as the Toccoa River, a small mountain stream in North Georgia in an area with 64 inches of annual rainfall. When it crosses the state line into Tennessee, the river’s name changes to the Ocoee. The Cherokee knew the Ocoee River gorge as the “apricot vine place”. The gorge area and most of the Parksville Reservoir downstream are surrounded by the Cherokee National Forest. Rafting occurs during scheduled water releases from upstream Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) dams for which rafting outfitters are required to pay a fee. Two sections of the river are used for rafting and paddling. The upper stretch is available about 35 days per year and the middle section is available 116 days per year as a result of federal legislation which led to a contract between TVA and the State of Tennessee in 1984. The term of that contract was for 35 years and it expires in 2019.
Prior to 1976, rafting and kayaking were impossible because the river was diverted from the riverbed by the TVA’s Ocoee No. 2 project, consisting of a diversion dam, a 4.5 mile wooden flume line and a power house at the end of the flume. The historic flume line and power plant were originally built in 1912 and 1913 by the Eastern Tennessee Power Company using a wooden “crib dam” to divert water into the flume line. The flume line runs along a bench over the river sluicing the entire normal river flow to a powerhouse 4.5 miles downstream. The river drops about 50 feet per mile on average, which creates great whitewater, while the flume line gradient over the total 4.5 mile distance is no more than 10 feet. The difference in the gradient creates over 200 feet of hydrostatic head at the powerhouse where the water rockets from the terminus of the flume line down penstocks into generators at river level.
By 1976 the flume line was leaking profusely, requiring costly repairs and reducing Ocoee No. 2’s generating capacity. The wooden crib dam needed replacing with a concrete structure. TVA decommissioned the project that year and water returned to the riverbed almost daily when TVA generated from the upstream power projects. Rafting and kayaking sprung up below the Ocoee No. 2 dam with several outfitters starting their businesses in 1977 with pick-up trucks and used rafts. As the river began to flow again, so did the visits for whitewater recreation. 7,000 paddlers enjoyed the Ocoee in 1977. In 2011 over 250,000 paddlers visited the river.
Shortly after shutting down the project, the TVA began considering plans to rebuild it. TVA also considered the fate of whitewater recreation, which would cease without a plan to provide water releases after the project was restored.
In 1979 Governor Lamar Alexander and country music star Jerry Reed rafted the river producing a dramatic television ad promoting Tennessee tourism. The genuine fun portrayed in that ad put the Ocoee on the map and river use skyrocketed. J.T. Lemons, who is the Chairman of today’s Ocoee River Council was the guide on that fateful raft trip.
By the end of 1980, rafting and kayaking use had grown to 56,500 visits, an increase of over 62% in one year. The public was hooked on Ocoee River rafting. But it was not clear that the river would survive as a rafting destination. Although TVA had included options for water releases in their Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), when restoration of the project was authorized by the TVA board of directors in 1979, no firm plans to continue recreation were approved. When water is released into the riverbed, there usually isn’t enough water to generate power. The TVA board said that rafting operators would have to pay the agency for the cost of replacing the power lost when water was allowed into the riverbed for rafting. Rafting and paddling enthusiasts realized the price for power reimbursement would be too high to sustain over the long term. TVA grossly underestimated the cost of building the only new wooden flume line in the nation to generate power and qualify for the National Register of Historic places.
In 1980, outfitters and paddlers formed the Ocoee River Council (ORC) to organize the effort to keep the river flowing. With support from hundreds of volunteers and Ocoee outfitters, ORC raised public and political support for recreation benefits. ORC argued the Ocoee was a very unique resource with economic value that deserved to be preserved. The power benefits of the hydro project amounted to 7/10,000ths of TVA’s overall generating capacity in 1980. Today it is even less.
CBS News covered the Ocoee story in 1982 on the Sunday edition of the evening news broadcast during which ORC Executive Director David Brown revealed that TVA’s own EIS had stated that the project’s entire benefits would not be noticeable in power rates, countering TVA’s arguments that rate payers would suffer if water releases were provided for whitewater recreation. After thousands of letters to Congress and the Governor of Tennessee, a lawsuit, river festivals and federal legislation, a 35-year agreement between TVA and the State of Tennessee was reached in 1984 to provide 116 days of water releases on the middle section of the Ocoee River. The overwhelming public support for whitewater rafting lent support to the efforts of Governor Alexander and Senator Howard Baker, who authored the legislation in the fall of 1983 to keep the river flowing. The legislation and agreement came just in time since the new flume line was finished in September of that year. The project had resumed operation and flows into the riverbed had diminished to a trickle. Today, robust growth of rafting continues, but outfitters and paddlers are already looking ahead to the expiration of the contract for water releases when the current contract expires in 2019.
America’s Olympic River
The upper stretch of the Ocoee was the site of the 1996 Olympic Canoe and Kayak Competition. In 1995 the Forest Service built an artificial whitewater course for the kayak slalom competition in the riverbed adjacent to Highway 64, creating a demanding set of rapids. Total cost of the project and the event was close to $28 million. Despite this investment, there were no plans to provide water releases for whitewater recreation in this section of river after the Olympic event. The Ocoee No. 3 project uses a steel pipe to divert water from the river bed above the stretch of river where the Olympic course is located. To acquire 34 days of water releases, rafting outfitters had to work out a complex deal to reimburse the agency for replacement power. Upper Ocoee releases have been a success, providing a full-day, 10-mile rafting experience when combined with the middle Ocoee. That success is limited only by the cost of water releases.
With whitewater recreation as its anchor, the Ocoee Region has become a mecca for outdoor recreation. The Forest Service developed a set of trails for mountain biking and hiking around the Ocoee Whitewater Center on the upper Ocoee. On a busy weekend the Ocoee River gorge is abuzz with thousands of rafters, sightseers, cyclists, hikers and campers.
How can you help?
Write letters to your US Senators & Representatives in Congress. We even have sample letters here on our website, or use the letter on the next page.
What should your letter say?
- Ask Congress to direct TVA to include whitewater recreation as a purpose of Ocoee No.2 and Ocoee No.3 projects.
- Ask that TVA be obligated to provide water releases consistent with the current schedule without reimbursement for lost power.
- Personalize your letter by conveying how much whitewater recreation means to you and especially the local and state economies.
Below is a model letter to Congress for the Senate and the House of Representatives and then customize it by expressing your personal interest in the Ocoee. Here are a few tips:
- Be sure to thank the Senators/Representatives for their interest in the river and proceed to tell them what the Ocoee means to you. This customization is very important!
- Politely tell members of Congress that the Tennessee Valley Authority should make whitewater recreation a purpose of the Ocoee No. 2 and Ocoee No. 3 projects and provide releases at least consistent with the cur- rent schedule without reimbursement for lost power.
- The legislation should include a provision for the state to continue management of the river and give them access to the property.
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510
Dear Senator ___________:
Thank you for taking time to consider my views on the future of the Ocoee River in East Tennessee.
I am writing in support of continued recreational whitewater releases on the Ocoee River in Polk County TN after the current contract expires in 2019. As you know, the Ocoee is the nation’s most popular recreational whitewater river. It provides over $43 million in economic benefits to our area annually. We must protect recreational use of this wonderful natural resource and not make recre- ation subordinate to a wooden flume line generating 21 megawatts of power. TVA is the only utility allowed to collect reimbursement for lost generating capacity due to recreational releases on our waterways. Releases on the Ocoee do not negatively impact lake levels at Blue Ridge Reservoir.
They also do not substantially impact peak demand generating capacity within the TVA system.
I hope the Congress will direct the TVA board of directors to designate Ocoee #2 and Ocoee #3 projects as multipurpose projects to include downstream whitewater recreation as a legitimate use of the river and project purposes. Future recreational releases should be provided consistent with the current release schedule without reimbursement for lost power.
Thank you so much for considering the important of the Ocoee River as the center piece of a truly remarkable recreation area which will only grow in importance.
(this personal information is important to verify that you are a real person)
SENATOR LAMAR ALEXANDER (click to email)
455 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
SENATOR BOB CORKER (click to email)
Dirksen Senate Office Building SD-425
Washington, DC 20510
CONGRESSMAN CHUCK FLEISCHMANN (click to email)
900 Georgia Avenue, Suite 126
Chattanooga, TN 37402
WHY DOES ANY OF THIS MATTER TO PRIVATE BOATERS?
Well, the drastically increased fees on our outfitters are
simply unsustainable. These fees represent a 780% increase from the current cost. If the outfitters are unable to pay for the water, releases will be jeopardized for private boaters and rafters alike. As an avid kayaker, I cannot imagine our area without the Ocoee River. It is a great source of pride for our community and a valuable economic resource to our region. With the current contract set to expire, we now have a unique opportunity to protect the Ocoee River in perpetuity. Right now, the only defined purpose of Ocoee No. 2 (Middle) is for gener- ating hydroelectric power. The Ocoee River Council is proposing legislation that would reclassify Ocoee No. 2 and Ocoee No. 3 projects to include whitewater recreation as one of the project’s purposes. This would effectively mean that whitewater recreation on the Ocoee River would be protected for your children, your grandchildren, and future generations to come. For many of us, the Ocoee River is where our love of whitewater recreation started. It is such a unique, beautiful river where one can safely practice difficult moves and prepare for winter creeking season. With over 5 million visitors to the Ocoee River since 1980, it is clear that we cannot replace this river as an asset to our state and region. How much does the Ocoee River mean to you?