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Background on the Upper Ocoee

Posted: 10/08/2002
by Sutton Bacon

The Upper Ocoee River, which brought the world to Tennessee as host of the 1996 Olympic whitewater slalom events, may soon be permanently dewatered by the TVA, leaving its mighty riverbed dry, its raging waters abandoned, and its proud Olympic heritage forgotten. Tragically, this $26 million investment in bringing a world-class whitewater course to Polk County, a burden borne largely by local taxpayers, will be left for dead, restored exactly to its condition before 1996. In other words, dry.

Water is allowed by the TVA in the Upper Ocoee riverbed and Olympic course only in two instances: 1) when local outfitters pay for the water, and 2) during the 10 days of "free" water provided by the TVA for events such as the Ocoee Rodeo and the United States Olympic Slalom Team Trials. The board had made public that events must look to be "self-sufficient," in other words, pay for the water. This board decision means that the Ocoee Rodeo, with an 18-year history, will no longer occur. Neither will national or international slalom events find a future home in Polk County. This fall's AW-sanctioned TEVA Whitewater National Championships will be the last whitewater event held at the Ocoee Whitewater Center. TVA stated that they have been "subsidizing" the whitewater industry long enough and that it is time to start fully recovering their costs.

TVA was established in 1933 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as part of his New Deal to steer the United States economy out of the Great Depression and specifically to generate prosperity within the Valley. As a result, TVA was charged with a fundamental responsibility to support economic development within the Tennessee Valley, primarily by helping communities help themselves. But how do TVA's plans to terminate recreational releases on the Upper Ocoee fulfill its Congressional mandate to further economic development in the region? TVA is choking off an important segment of the local economy in the Polk County area -- river-based tourism -- by its refusal to share Ocoee river water. It is estimated that the local economic impact of water used for whitewater recreation on the Ocoee outweighs the value of water used for power production by more than 30:1.

However, this data reinforces a dangerous notion of paying for water. Water in rivers is owned by the public under the Public Trust Doctrine and should not be inequitably withheld from the public. By claiming ownership of the Ocoee's water and demanding remuneration for lost revenue, TVA makes river outfitters vulnerable by making them the cornerstone of the local economy, which in turn makes the local economy vulnerable. Rafting companies simply cannot afford to pay for water long-term, especially since TVA is not entitled to ownership of the Ocoee's water.

Donating water for recreational purposes is a common practice for other power companies. For example, in 1993 Georgia Power teamed with both paddlers and community members to create releases on the Tallulah River and its dramatic river gorge left dry since 1913. In addition, Georgia Power generously donated approximately 3000 acres of land surrounding the gorge to the state of Georgia to establish Tallulah Gorge State Park. Because of the Tallulah's small watershed, Georgia Power estimates a revenue loss on the Tallulah of $75,000 per 10-day season, or approximately $40 per boater per day. It realized that whitewater releases were infinitely more valuable to the surrounding community than to the company, because for a multi-billion dollar corporation, $75,000 makes a very inconsequential impact on company economics. On whitewater release weekends, Tallulah Gorge State Park experiences over 20,000 more visitors per year to the park, which in turn introduced 20,000 new visitors each year to the local economy. Georgia Power's unselfish decision to release water on the Tallulah at a cost to them truly revitalized a local economy and seamlessly brought a large utility, whitewater boaters, and an entire community together.

But unlike Georgia Power, TVA refuses to cooperate with boaters or with the community. It is unfortunate that the largest power company in North America with revenues of nearly $7 billion will not forsake $133,000 per year for releases on the Upper Ocoee River, hardly a dent in TVA's financial statements, to protect Tennessee's Olympic legacy, let alone to protect and nurture a local economy dependent on water releases. TVA is not subject to the authority of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and therefore does not have to give recreational and environmental issues equal consideration to power generation and does not have to cooperate with other federal agencies like the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service like private dam owners do. TVA's private competitors must comply with many social and ecological standards that TVA chooses to ignore.

TVA only manages three whitewater reaches in its entire system (the Hiwassee, Rock Island, and Ocoee) yet has countless miles of whitewater buried beneath reservoirs. Neither the Hiwassee or Ocoee are equitably managed for the recreational benefits they provide. TVA is mandated to provide for navigability under the TVA Act. The Ocoee is a navigable river, yet it is dewatered by TVA to the point where navigation is impossible. Whitewater releases on the Upper Ocoee have no or minor impacts on lake levels upstream and whitewater releases will have negligible environmental impacts.

In 2001, TVA initiated a study on its reservoir operations, and for over a year, American Whitewater attended public meetings in hopes of that the study would recognize whitewater recreation as a project purpose for the Ocoee #2 and #3 stations. At those meetings, the public spoke. 34% of those who attended public meetings during the spring 2002 felt that recreation should be TVA's top priority, while only 1% felt that it was a priority for TVA. Many of these respondents directly mentioned the Upper Ocoee as a concern. Conversely, 11% of attendees thought that TVA's top priority should be power generation, while 48% felt that it was their current priority.

Unfortunately, TVA's Reservoir Operations Study (ROS) ultimately resulted in management decisions that ignored the input of the Copper Basic economic community and the interest of the public. The final draft of the ROS, due in February 2003, will include every reservoir and downstream interest in the entire TVA system except the Ocoee. American Whitewater found the ROS completely disingenuous because of TVA's refusal to include a 1997 USFS plan to increase release Upper Ocoee release capacity to 74 days instead of 20; its unilateral decision, without concern for public input, what information is and is not included in the decision making process; and its attempt to marginalize the significance of the Upper Ocoee by compartmentalizing regionally, yet placing burden on a broad region of ratepayers.

In 2003, the only water releases that are planned for the Upper Ocoee are the two days allocated in 2001 for the World Slalom Championships. Thereafter, TVA plans to release no more water for the use of private citizens. Separately, TVA plans to raise the levy for outfitter customers to $12.50, a level that cannot be regained sustainably by these businesses. Since they also have to meet minimum usage levels each year, this levy is certain to drive outfitters off the river and leave the river dry.

Unless TVA changes their expectation of full cost recovery or an alternative source of funding is developed, recreation on the Upper Ocoee will most likely end after the 2002 season. Direct negotiation with TVA has failed, continuing an unfortunately common trend for the Ocoee. In 1984, it took intervention by the United States Congress itself to secure recreational releases on the Middle Ocoee.

American Whitewater believes that:

  • The long-term financial well-being of the local community outweighs TVA's decision to withhold water from the Upper Ocoee River, and furthermore that whitewater recreation on the Upper Ocoee creates no detriment to the financial health of TVA.
  • This local financial well-being results from whitewater recreation, not from lake recreation or power generation.
  • The $26 million public investment in the Ocoee Whitewater Center is not a one-time deal and should not be destroyed by TVA's unwillingness to share water.
  • The public owns the Ocoee's water, not the TVA. It is a public resource designated under the Public Land Trust; therefore TVA has no mandate to charge fees for its use.
  • Whitewater releases have no effect on lake levels because TVA currently operates its Ocoee/Toccoa hydroelectric projects at least 95% of the year, and whitewater releases use the same amount of water as, if not less than, power generation.

To help remedy this situation, American Whitewater proposes these key initiatives:

  • Legislation should be introduced and passed that recognizes whitewater recreation a project purpose of Ocoee #2 and #3.
  • A long-term management agreement should be developed between the state of Tennessee, TVA and the Forest Service, which recognizes the state as the managing authority.
  • The current contract between the state and TVA and the legislation authorizing releases on the Middle Ocoee must be retained.
  • The public must ask the TVA Board of Directors to take responsibility for the regional economic data and voice of public opinion.

We want TVA to provide water releases for public, non-commercial use and to establish a fair economic model with commercial outfitters on the Upper Ocoee that will be sustainable for the long term. We ask that citizens write to their congressional representatives and to the Tennessee Valley Authority Board of Directors and ask them to maintain the Ocoee's Olympic legacy and the public trust of the citizens of Tennessee and the Southeastern United States to free the water that belongs to the Upper Ocoee.