Photo Courtesy of Tom Tohill
Many people love to hate dams because they destroy native ecosystems, severely diminish the wilderness character of rivers, and displace anyone living downstream. And the power they generate usually just gets dumped into the grid for everyone’s use, which brings scant benefit to the locals who are most affected. Dams that are (mis)managed for the benefit of giant corporations over actual people are the worst of all, because often the recreational benefits they can provide are discounted or ignored entirely just to wring the last possible dollar out of all that rushing water.
Such appears to be the case with the Ocoee River in Tennessee. As the nation’s most popular whitewater river—some 250,000 people visit each year for rafting, canoeing, and kayaking—you’d think the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) would continue to support whitewater releases from the dam it operates there. Unfortunately, you’d be wrong. According to the Ocoee River Council, the TVA wants $1.8 million annually to continue returning water to the riverbed for recreation after the current contract for water releases expires in March 2019. And it’s even worse than that; the TVA is insisting on payment upfront, which means outfitters would have to obtain a $9 million loan to secure water releases for five years. Add at least another $2 million for interest and closing costs, and the price would climb to $11 million or more, an enormous sum that likely would have to be paid for by rafting fee increases of $8-10 per person on the Middle Ocoee. That might not sound like much, but outfitters justifiably fear it would drive away customers, which would force additional price increases in a self-defeating downward spiral.
“The cost to users of paying for lost power to obtain water releases is not sustainable, even if it were half the price TVA wants,” says David Brown, a spokesman for the American Outdoors Association. He also noted that outfitters would be hard-pressed to secure such a large loan with just a five-year time horizon. The upshot: recreational river usage would nose-dive and many outfitters could go out of business, taking with them some $43 million in annual economic benefits and 622 full-time-job equivalents within 60 miles of the river—not to mention a slice of irreplaceable outdoor recreation.
“The Ocoee is a public resource,” Brown says. “It’s not that outfitters aren’t going to pay fees—they have been for years—but it’s who they pay fees to and whether they’re reasonable. There has to be some consideration for recreation.”
The Ocoee is one of the only rivers in the Southeast where recreation is not part of the dam’s license. That’s because, unlike other power companies, the TVA is a federally owned corporation created by congressional charter in 1933. Unfortunately for rafting companies and their clients, its projects aren’t licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which requires most utilities to provide equal opportunities for recreation without reimbursement for lost power.
TVA Spokesman Jim Hopson says it’s only “fair” that outfitters pay up. “When the TVA diverts water for power production, there’s a cost associated with that to serve 9 million people across the river valley. We’re working with the rafting companies to determine the most fair and equitable approach, but we have to make sure that the TVA’s rate payers aren’t burdened.” Except the “burden” would be trivial; the TVA reportedly has pegged the cost of recreational releases at less than 1/50th of 1 percent of its annual revenue. Hopson refused to confirm that number, but he did admit that the cost “isn’t a significant portion” of the TVA’s earnings. So it’s clear that power rate hikes would be minimal and could easily be absorbed by the TVA itself if it’s that concerned about its customers.
Jack Wise, CEO and co-owner of Ocoee River outfitter Wildwater, notes that if the TVA gets its way, companies like his will have no choice but to raise prices or cut overhead. Either option would take a toll on the river experience for paying customers, and outfitters would be forced to renegotiate a contract every five years, making long-term business planning nearly impossible. The TVA is “going to ruin an economic driver for Southeast Tennessee,” Wise says.
Preventing that will require new legislation. Wise encourages concerned paddlers to contact congressional representatives and ask that TVA recognize whitewater recreation as a purpose of the Ocoee dam and provide releases at least consistent with the current schedule. He believes recreation on one of the East’s iconic rivers is worth fighting for.