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The Ocoee River’s iconic existence is preserved (for now)! Long live the Ocoee!

Ocoee rapids are the primary diet of many Southeastern paddlers. It is so much a staple of the whitewater enthusiast in our region, that no one could possibly imagine a summer without Ocoee whitewater flowing five days a week. The banks of the Ocoee have been cradling rapids that whet the whitewater appetites of the masses for 35 years. This happens during a strategic time when so many local rivers have dried up and been forgotten until the leaves fall off and the rains return to the South.

Ocoee is well known and touted as a rafting river, one of America’s most popular. Perhaps even more traveled than the crowded Brown’s Canyon in Colorado, or California’s American River. It’s a toss up, depending on seasons. People love the Ocoee, and it’s refreshing waters provide a cool ride through a scenic gorge typical of Appalachian Tennessee. It’s a place where the average person can experience what a seasoned paddler does. That’s a big deal for tourism and economic stimulus in the tens of millions annually. Ocoee is the region’s primary centerpiece for outdoor tourism, drawing big crowds. Frankly, those crowds detract from our experience, but they are the reason we have water…

The water released by public utility giant TVA from their reservoir is paid by the commercial users, and the fact that water is reimbursed at all has been a subject of debate and frustration for years. Philosophically speaking, water should be a free resource. But going back to TVA’s creation as a critical part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal Program to provide relief to the Southern States struggling with poverty and challenges during the Great Depression, TVA was granted sovereign ownership of the water their dams and key infrastructure depend on for power generation. This happened at a time when rural America was being electrified and the government stepped in to help. So, it was not a scheme to steal water and count bags of money. At the time, it actually shut down the wealthy Southern electrical monopolies.

While many people think this should be repealed and changed, there are actually more environmental regulations and public concerns today that dictate how TVA moves and pushes water around than there ever were. And keeping control of that water compartmentalized into one agency to insure compliance still makes a lot of sense. Personally, I’m on the fence about it, because while I’d selfishly love to see more whitewater resources under the TVA umbrella (like the Hiwassee Dries!), the Ocoee does count for a lot. And it must be said that the structure of TVA, as FDR put it, “allows it to move with the strength of government but with the expediency of a corporation.” This allows greater flexibility than expected from a bureaucratic system. Since TVA is our largest employer, the people who work there are our peers. We share the same communities and waterways. They are not far removed in DC, shrouded in mysterious bureaucracy, watching the consequences of their actions from a safe distance.

While I think ownership of water is a philosophical dilemma, we should be more grateful for what we have received for the past 35 years at the Ocoee, because frankly, it greatly exceeds what a FERC regulated dam would ever have given us!
TVA never had to incur the losses of thousands of megawatts during expensive times of drought and natural gas price hikes, or maintain the flume for all those years. And the rafting companies never had to stay in business with relentless competition and declining numbers. They made their TVA payments and everyone did their part and made enormous contributions over the years.

Now we owe a huge THANK YOU to the state of Tennessee for the happy ending that means another 15 years of water! Specifically, state legislators Mike Bell and Dan Howell drove the success of this solution. I wanted to attend the ribbon cutting and offer a face to face THANK YOU to those guys from our entire community. Huge grins were worn on the river by TVA Vice President David Bowling, who makes it a point to raft quite often and takes great pride in the diversity of the Ocoee’s many resources.

I attended (and paddled) with AW superstar Kevin Colburn, who stepped in on several occasions during this process to advocate for the rights of private boaters and to point out the ecological benefits of a river left to it’s own devices vs harnessed by dams and exploitation. Commercial outfitters with a strong paddling background like Kip Gilliam were critical to the effort and made history with this spring float. A great dinner and shuttle was hosted by Ocoee Inn, the Ocoee’s only waterfront resort. We all put trust in veteran Ocoee paddler and lobbyist Brian Bivens to facilitate a solution, and while doing that, he managed to stay sharp enough at paddling to rip up some waves in his new Antix!

How can we best show our appreciation? I believe that we should paddle the Ocoee as much as possible, support the economy, attend upcoming events, take our families rafting, eat at restaurants, buy supplies in Polk county, go camping, explore all the amenities, and finally, think about how to make it even better. American Whitewater took a survey that clearly indicated the public wanted better whitewater features at Ocoee, like so many rivers have today for surfing and competition. We could build these features below the generators taking advantage of TVA’s generation waters as well as the recreational releases, and double our times to play! We could finally host competitions more easily, facilitate athlete training and community integration, the benefits are many…

It is certain that we could draw more stimulus at times that don’t rack up management dollars or further crowd the gorge with some additional ideas and amenities. Perhaps more trails, including more handicapped access, hiking and mountain biking? Perhaps a picnic and bouldering area? What does Ocoee 2.0 look like to you? How can you help?
I’m open to hear from any and all people who want to help with suggestions or proposals: