Outcome of reservoir study could impact lake activities

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khughes@starhq.com

   Last week, Watauga Lake was about 5 feet below normal, the lowest it's been in the last 12 years.
   H. Morgan Goranflo Jr., senior consultant for Tennessee Valley Authority river scheduling and operations, said most of the Tennessee Valley received a healthy dose of rain in the latter part of January.
   "The rain and the runoff didn't get up to your section very much," he said. "It filled about a foot or two or three at the most. We've pretty much been running just minimum flows for downstream usage there for the last several weeks.
   "If we get some good rain, we are certainly in the period of the year now where we would like to start filling up. When somebody turns the spigot on we'll start storing it in there," he said. "We're shooting for 1,959 feet on June 1. We've got about 19 feet to go. We're not getting a running start at it like we would like to."
   TVA is in the first year of a study to re-evaluate how the agency operates all of its reservoirs.
   "The way it's been explained to me is any and all options are on the table," Goranflo said. The first of a series of public meetings begins Thursday in Dalton, Ga., and Tupelo, Miss. The only local meeting will be held April 11 at Sullivan Central High School in Blountville.
   "Anybody that's got an interest in how we operate the reservoirs needs to go to the public meetings and make their comments," Goranflo said.
   Gil Francis of TVA media relations said the agency's citizen advisory group, the Regional Resource Stewardship Council, recommended TVA conduct a formal evaluation of its policies for operating the reservoir system, including an analysis of costs and benefits of any potential changes in those policies.
   The reservoir system policies guide the integrated operation of TVA dams for flood risk reduction, year-round navigation, affordable electricity, improved water quality, economic growth, water supply, recreation and land use. The policies affect how much reservoir levels rise and fall and when changes in the reservoir levels occur.
   Watauga Lake, according to Francis, is used for power generation, some flood control, recreation and water quality. "It will be one of the areas looked at over the next two years as TVA looks at the reservoir study," to be completed in October 2003.
   Francis said the regional council group met a number of times and the one thing they consistently heard was "If we had the lake up longer we could enjoy recreation longer, we'd have more tourists and commerce ..."
   Historically, when TVA was formed, it was to provide for "navigation, flood control, and as you can, power generation. In the 1990s after we did the lake improvement study, we added recreation and water quality to those major functions," Francis said.
   "The study is going to look at multiple purposes, or multiple functions, to see what can be done to change anything, or to see if a different operating policy would provide greater overall value."
   If TVA holds lake levels higher for a longer period of time, it cuts into power generation, Francis said. "You also lose flood storage space, so you offset your other benefits. When you change any of them you have an impact, and you can't change one in isolation. It impacts everything else."
   TVA currently can begin a restricted drawdown of Watauga Lake from June 1 through Aug. 1. "After Aug. 1, we can take it down however fast we need to," Goranflo said.
   "We try not to lower the lake any while we know the fish are spawning, so we don't uncover any of the beds. That's usually not an issue in the spring because, normally, we're trying to fill," he said. However, with lower than normal levels this year, "we're going to try to capture any rainfall that we're lucky enough to get up there. I think it's really too early to tell what impact it might have on the fishery."
   Goranflo said boaters and others who use the lake for recreation like to have it at near full pool (around 1,959 feet) by Memorial Day at the end of May. If the lake doesn't reach that level, it could spell trouble for boaters via high spots sticking out which are usually under water, or worse, lurking just beneath the surface.
   Tom White Sr., whose father started Fish Springs Boat Dock on Watauga Lake in 1949 when the lake first opened for fishing, said, "I never did see it stay way down but one year, and that was in 1959 or something like that."
   When told of the reservoir operations study, White said the one thing he has ran into with TVA over the years, is, "They'll listen to you, and then they say, 'Hey, we built that for flood control, navigation or electricity.' And if you don't fit into one of those categories, that's tough. They have recreation down there in about the 10th spot. They built this lake for that reason and nothing else: flood control and navigation in the rivers below here."
   Besides Fish Springs, the lake is home to a number of marinas, including Lakeshore, Cove Ridge, Mallard Cove, Midway and Pioneer Landing. Most offer docking, fishing supplies, and snacks. Those which rent camping spaces usually are full year-round.
   The first marina tourists encounter on their way around the lake on Highway 321/67 from Hampton is Lakeshore, which includes a motel, cottages, ski and boat rentals. Locals and tourists are drawn to the Captain's Table restaurant, also part of Lakeshore, for fine dining amid a view overlooking the lake. It is also the only private club/eating establishment in Carter County where patrons may purchase a mixed drink.
   For whitewater enthusiasts, Watauga River offers a challenging 6-mile stretch of Class IV and V rapids through the Watauga gorge. Rapids below Wilbur Dam are Class I-II and commercial rafters often can be found riding this 10-mile section. Changes to TVA reservoir operations could impact these activities.
   At a time when Carter County has its eye on economic development, some progressive thinkers view Watauga Lake's 109 miles of shoreline as a potential source for tourism development.
   White says most of the land surrounding the lake is held either by TVA or private landowners and that development for the most part would be a losing proposition.
   However, "TVA could come down Iron Mountain on the other side of the lake and put in a four-lane highway and sell that land off and pay off the national debt. They could create hunting and high-dollar cabins. But you've got to cater to the people that live in adjacent counties to really get something going.
   "I started out down here with nothing and ended up with a pretty good thing," he said.