The whitewater rafting season is officially underway on the Ocoee River, with a big celebration for an agreement that will keep the river running for years to come.
More than 5 million rafters have navigated the twists and turns of the Ocoee, with 2 million in just the last 10 years, making a huge economic impact in the southeast Tennessee communities it borders.
It was made even more popular after part of the river was used for Olympic competition during the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta.
But the fun and the business is dependent on TVA, which controls the dams on the Ocoee to generate electricity. If it wanted, TVA could divert all of the water from the river into the hydroelectric process.
For years, TVA and the whitewater outfitters worked under an agreement that 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. That agreement was set to expire in October 2018.
Lawmakers stepped in last year, working with state, federal, and local officials to reach a compromise to keep the river, and the recreation, running. That agreement was celebrated Monday with a ceremonial ribbon cutting to open the river up for rafting.
“We look forward to providing safety and security on the river and to working with local outfitters to maintain the Ocoee River’s status as a world-class recreational opportunity,” said Tennessee State Parks Deputy Commissioner Brock Hill.
In early 2017, the Tennessee General Assembly passed the Ocoee River Recreation and Economic Development Fund Act, creating a fund and governing Board to support the contract agreement.
Under the agreement, the state will be responsible for the commercial rafting activities on the Ocoee, including permitting, maintenance, emergency response, and traffic management.
“The Ocoee is one of the greatest whitewater experiences in the United States,” said Tennessee Department of Tourist Development Commissioner Kevin Triplett. “The challenges of the water combined with the beauty of Southeast Tennessee truly is one of our state’s great assets.”
Because of its impact on economic development, the state will pay TVA for lost revenue from power generation. The commercial outfitters will also pay a 10 percent licensing fee to the state to help pay for the oversight and management of the operations.
TVA will provide water releases from Ocoee Dam No. 2 and No. 3 for a term of 15 years on the middle and upper sections of the Ocoee River beginning in 2019.
“TVA is proud of the positive impact that the Ocoee River has on the economic prosperity of the region,” said David Bowling, TVA vice president, land and river management. “This historic partnership helps ensure that the Ocoee remains one of the most successful whitewater destinations in the nation.”
So for the next 15 years, the agreement will keep the water flowing and tourists flocking to enjoy some of the best whitewater in the world.
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.