By BRIAN GRAVES
The new whitewater use agreement between TVA, the state of Tennessee and other agencies drew plenty of attention Monday night during a public forum held at Cleveland State."This is a unique …
The new whitewater use agreement between TVA, the state of Tennessee and other agencies drew plenty of attention Monday night during a public forum held at Cleveland State.
"This is a unique agreement," said state Sen. Mike Bell, one of the legislative sponsors of the bill which created the agreement. "This is the only river in the United States that depends upon a federal utility to release water for a recreational purpose. And, it's a federal utility that has as part of its rules it must be compensated for the power."
"That was why the $11.8 million the governor put in the budget was so important," Bell said. "That is to pay TVA for the loss of revenue. You don't have TVA customers in Mississippi subsidizing the rafter [and rower] on the Ocoee."
The U.S. Forest Service cooperates with the TVA, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and local outfitter/guides to offer a variety of water-based recreation experiences.
Rusty Smith, TVA specialist on policy and project management, says the biggest difference from the current setup is the creation of a board which will be appointed by the governor.
"Right now, TVA administers the permitting part of it with some interaction," Smith said. "Under this new contract, we are putting everything under the U.S. Forest Service so when the outfitters have concerns they know where they are going."
Smith also explained the board will administer a fund created by a user fee to determine how those funds will be used.
"All TVA is doing is putting easements in place for the state and they will be able to use the property we have which we are doing now," he said. "We will release the water according to the schedule. TVA will only have to get involved if something happens like a gate breaks."
Smith said the 2019 schedule, which is when the new agreement will take effect, "is almost identical to what we have now."
"I think for most users, they aren't going to see any change," Smith said. "It will be the same outfitters and the same state park. It just won't be TVA doing the commercial permitting anymore. It will be all through the state."
Robin Peak, TVA water management, said another part of the forum was to allow public input on the environmental impact of the new agreement.
"Anyone with any comments need to get them in," Peak said. "The comments will close Jan. 5. We will address those comments, then it will go back out as a final document sometime in the spring."
She said if there is no finding of significant impact, "which right now we're saying there's no finding," then the state will move forward with the process of setting up the board and getting all the rules and regulations established.
TVA biologist Adam Datillo said the environmental studies so far have found one endangered plant species called Ruth's Golden Aster, which grows among the rocks.
"This is one of only two places that plant occurs," Datillo said. "There is one on the Hiwassee River and on on the Ocoee River."
"The proposed action, I think, will have no impact and possibly have a positive impact in the long term for the species," he said. "Conditions under the proposed actions are similar to what has been occuring on that section of the river for years."
Datillo said data is showing when regular flows were implemented from Ocoee #2, there was a steady increase in the population of the plant along that section of water.
Kevin Jenkins, vice president of the Ocoee Outfitters Association, said the agreement has been a long time coming, but was worth the wait.
"I think in general for us, the positive is just knowing the river is going to operate for 15 years," Jenkins said. "Hopefully, after those 15 years we can figure out another solution before we ever get to the point we got to this time."
He is optimistic that can happen.
"If we get started early with the new board that will be involved with this, there is some work ahead of us, but I think we will get there," Jenkins said.
He said the new agreement has the potential to "do something that has not been done before."
"It has the potential to create economic development that has not been done," Jenkins said. "If the board is successful right off the bat, it will set a tone for the future and this could do something economically for the Ocoee that hasn't been done on other rivers I am aware of."
He gave credit to Bell, state Reps. Dan Howell and Kevin Brooks, and state Sen. Todd Gardenhire for their work in getting the agreement into place.
Jenkins said on average 200,000 rafters go down the Ocoee every year.
"This is the busiest whitewater river in the United States," he added. "Living so close to it, we forget how unique it is."
"It has taken awhile to sink in that we have this agreement," Jenkins said. "There were a lot of twists and turns to get here."
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