TVA spilling water, generating power to keep lake levels down

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

   If you've driven around Watauga Lake since Easter Sunday, you might have noticed that the water level is a little higher than normal. At Shook Branch, ducks have been swimming right up to and over the tops of - picnic tables. The bottoms of some grills are almost touching the lake. Water is nearly up to the roadway at Watauga Point and reaches to the base of the new pier at Rat Branch. The boat launch ramp is submerged.
   "The water pool is slightly higher than it normally is for this time of year," Gil Francis, Tennessee Valley Authority media relations, said Tuesday.
   At Watauga Lake, TVA is generating power 18 hours a day to lower those water levels, Francis said. "The forecast is to continue that effort for the next one to two weeks to get those levels back to where they should be for this time of year. Normal level is 1,959 [feet] and we're really only about 1,960.5."
   The TVA began spilling water Monday at Norris Dam near Knoxville because levels are 2 feet higher than normal for this time of year, Francis said. It also is spilling at Nickajack and at Watts Bar, where a fire last year damaged the hydro plant.
   "You never want to spill water because you want to use that water to generate power. But for example, at Norris, we've got to move it because it's just too much." Spilling is the last resort, but depending on how much water is in the system, sometimes you have to do it, he said.
   With more rain in the forecast beginning today, if the system comes in and stalls over the area, TVA will have to adjust accordingly, Francis said.
   Does the wet winter and early spring soaking signal an end to the drought?
   Francis says only time will tell. "We had gone from 1997 until January of this year and were running a 30+ inch [rainfall] deficit because of a sustained drought. Then we got heavy rain in February, basically no rain in March, and now we've got rain again in April. We're a little bit above for the year, but it's in peaks. March is typically the wettest month, but it wasn't this year." This is because of weather patterns, he said.
   "If at the end of summer we've had normal rainfall, you could say we're out of the drought. But let's say that after the rain this weekend, it's dry from here on until August. Then you can say, no, you're not."
   The TVA will bring down the water level at Watauga and other full-to-overflowing reservoirs within its system as quickly as possible, according to Francis. "People say, 'Why don't you lower it quicker?' "
   The answer, he said, is "because it's a large amount of water and it just takes time. If you fill your bathtub up, once you pull the plug, it's still going to take a certain amount of time for that water to drain. The same thing with us on a larger scale: We're moving it, but it still takes a certain amount of time."
   If the TVA opened all of its gates at once it would create flooding in the lower Tennessee Valley. "The system was designed to hold back water so you don't have all of the water rushing down at the same time," Francis said.
   "We'd love to have that water later on in the summer when it's hot. But it's a finite space. There's only so much water that you can hold on to, and then you get to the point where you can't hold on to it anymore. It's got to move, because you know it's going to rain again."
   The TVA will be spilling water for two weeks at Norris Dam and will keep generating at Watauga Lake to bring the water down, Francis said.
   Normally, the TVA begins to store water in Watauga Lake and its other reservoirs in mid-April in order to reach summer pool by June 1.
   "If you start to store water too soon, before things start to green up and the runoff is not as great, you can run into some flood issues. Because of the cycle that we follow and the weather patterns that we know historically exist, we've got a guidance schedule of where we need to be," Francis said.