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Ocoee Release Fix Proposed in TN Legislature

Posted: 04/06/2017
by Kevin Colburn

A bill has been introduced in the Tennessee Legislature that aims to continue treasured recreational releases on the Ocoee River after current release agreements expire in March of 2019. The Ocoee River Recreation and Economic Development Fund Act, would create a fund that would be used to pay the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) for releases and to pay for other river management costs. The Fund would be funded through a 10% fee on outfitter revenue, as well as through state appropriations, grants, and donations. The Fund would be administered by an 11-person board, including a private boating representative.

The bill is silent on the number and timing of releases that would be bought from the TVA. Both TVA and outfitters indicate that the release schedule will be very similar to the current schedule on both the Upper and Middle Ocoee. The proposed release schedule should be available within a few weeks. 

If this bill passes, a number of steps would have to follow. The Fund would likely need an initial appropriation from the State legislature to make payments to TVA in 2019. The TVA will study a range of release schedules using a (NEPA) process that requires consideration of alternatives and  public comment (estimated to begin in early May). Contracts will be signed based on the outcome of the study. With the Fund in place, money in the Fund, a decision from TVA in place, and a contract with TVA, recreation releases could continue for years to come.

Paddlers have a few important near-term opportunities to weigh in on this proposed path forward:

STEP 1 - First: Read the Bill. The bill's webpage is here, the language itself is in the amendment (you can also download here). Note other amendments may be added to the bill's webpage (one already eliminated a proposed increase in rafting capacity).

STEP 2 - Now: If you live in Tennessee, reach out to your state legislators and tell them what you think about the bill. We made it easy for you to email your legislator and let them know what you think about the bill.  

STEP 3 – May 2017: No matter where you live, when TVA studies the fate of the Ocoee you will have opportunities to comment at least twice: once on what issues and alternatives should be studied and preferred (Likely May), and then on their draft analysis and draft decision (Likely 2018).

STEP 4 – This Summer: If the bill passes, you will be able to contact the private boating representative and other members of the fund board to advocate for your interests.

Here at American Whitewater we do not believe the public should have to pay a public agency for public water to be released from public dams. With this said, the historical pay-for-water status quo is unlikely to change as long as there are willing payers, and therefore we look at this legislation pragmatically. This is the path the outfitters have chosen to take to protect Ocoee releases, at their own expense, and it stands to protect these very important releases for all paddlers. While we should remain vigilant regarding potential new fees on private boaters, this legislation does not include or envision such fees. We support this legislation as a means of funding Ocoee River management.

American Whitewater wants to see no net loss in Ocoee releases.  We’ll be advocating for the continuation of the historic schedule or something very close in TVA’s public process. If the request from the Fund falls short of this goal, we’ll ask TVA to make up the shortfall by providing releases free of compensation. Over 750 paddlers participated in our Ocoee River related survey late last year and we have a wealth of data to support the value of releases.

American Whitewater will help keep paddlers aware of all opportunities to weigh in, and make commenting easy at each step. We view this as an issue of national importance, and will be highly involved now that public processes have begun. We’d like to thank NRS for supporting our efforts to secure a good outcome on the Ocoee. The important first step: If you live in TN, Let your legislator know what you think about the Ocoee River Recreation and Economic Development Fund Act.