The rushing rapids of the Ocoee River draw thousands of people every season, but for years the future of the river was as turbulent as the water itself.
Now, lawmakers have brokered a compromise to protect its future as both a power generating site and whitewater destination.
At the center of the fight is the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Ocoee 2 Dam, between the upper and middle sections of the river.
When TVA is using it to generate electricity, it diverts nearly all the water away from the river and into a flume. Over five miles, that wooden trough brings the water 250 feet up the valley’s side, before it can come crashing down at the powerhouse.
This process replicates the water pressure, and generating potential, of a much taller dam. Ocoee 2 itself is only 30 feet tall.
The Ocoee River first became a rafting destination in 1978, after repairs closed Dam #2. Long-diverted water was returned to the river bed, and whitewater fanatics flocked to enjoy it.
“It’s continuous, beautiful and a great celebration of Tennessee’s natural heritage,” said kayaker Kirk Eddlemon.
But once the dam was repaired, a tenuous compromise was struck between TVA and the budding whitewater industry – TVA would periodically release water into the river for recreation, and the rafting companies would collect a fee to cover TVA’s lost generating cost.
The popularity of the river has ballooned since then. More than 5 million people have navigated its twists and turns, with 2 million in just the last 10 years.
The upper section was used as the whitewater course for the 1996 Olympic Games.
Today, the rafting industry supports more than 600 jobs, and brings in more than $43 million for communities within a 50 mile radius. It’s a huge tourism draw for Polk County.
But with TVA’s release agreement set to expire in 2019, and the last recreational release set for October 2018, lawmakers scrambled to reach a compromise. Rafting companies worried they would be unable to cover the value of lost generating revenue, which TVA is mandated by law to collect.
"Without a new agreement, hypothetically, yes the river could have run dry,” said state Rep. Dan Howell, (R-Georgetown). Howell sponsored the Ocoee River Recreation and Economic Development Fund Act, which was signed by Gov. Bill Haslam on May 17.
The legislation creates a board to manage interests in the Ocoee River, and collects a 10 percent tax on rafting outfitters’ profits for a development fund.
Haslam also allocated $11.8 million in the state budget to help reimburse TVA for lost revenue.
“It was complicated, but I think ultimately we arrived at very good agreement for all the parties involved,” said TVA VP of Government Relations Justin Maierhofer.
Complicated, because of the competing interests – TVA manages the river, though it runs through Cherokee National Forest. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and a representative of Hiwassee/Ocoee Scenic River State Park will also have votes on the new board.
“We’re super excited that they worked something out,” said Eddlemon. “This is a great resource, a great economic boon to the county. And personally, I work here, so knowing we’ve got water in the river, it’s really comforting to know we can enjoy this river with everybody else.”
It’s also a relief for the outfitters. Jim Kibler, of Ocoee Inn Rafting, has been guiding on the river for more than 30 years. On Friday, he took a group of reporters down the river on a tour.
“I think they finally got it right,” he said of the deal. “It took a long time coming, but it’s all good."
Kibler said the uncertainty has been a concern. He works as a teacher, but in the summer, supports his family by guiding.
“It definitely brings us some stability that we know we’re going to be in business,” he said. “Because there for a while we weren’t sure.”
And with the deal locked in for the next 15 years, Kibler said he can get back to enjoying the Ocoee, and sharing it with others.
“It’s beautiful,” he said. “You meet people from all over the world. It’s just a positive experience.”