Cool, rainy spring boosts river flow, but cuts flow of whitewater rafters on the Ocoee River

Cool, rainy spring boosts river flow, but cuts flow of whitewater rafters on the Ocoee River

July 6th, 2013 by Dave Flessner in Business Around the Region

With river guides helping to unload rafts, rafters prepare to ride down the Ocoee River. Rainy weather has been keeping rafters away.

Photo by Staff File Photo/Times Free Press.

What nature gives with one hand, it takes away with another.

Abundant rain this year has given plenty of water flow for America's top whitewater rafting river in Polk County, Tenn. But the cool and wet spring also hurt business for the commercial rafters that carry more than 200,000 visitors a year through the rapids of the Ocoee River.

The July 4th weekend -- usually one of the busiest for the two dozen licensed rafting companies on the Ocoee -- didn't sell out this year, and most rafting companies said cool and wet weather this spring kept many potential rafters off the river during May and June.

"It's a blessing to have so much water, but it has put a damper on the outdoor recreation tourism business," said Blake McPherson, operations manager for Cherokee Rafting, which has operated on the Ocoee for 35 years. "But the Ocoee is dam-controlled, so as long as TVA can keep the water flowing, we'll be fine, and we're just now coming into our peak season."

Kip Gilliam, owner of Cascade River and one of the leaders of the Ocoee Outfitters Association, said he booked only 40 people on Independence Day.

"We normally have several hundred on the Fourth of July," he said. "It's been a cool and wet spring, and that has hurt all of the rafters."

With rainfall more than 13 inches above normal this year and the flume line damaged by a fallen rock, rafters lost a couple of days of the 114-day season this spring when river flow exceeded acceptable levels. The flume has since been repaired, and TVA expects to be able to control the Ocoee flow for rafters through the peak summertime season through Labor Day.

TVA could provide extra days for rafting with its water supplies stored in upstream reservoirs, TVA river forecasting manager Tom Barnett said earlier this week.

But since such extra releases are only announced the day before they are available, it usually doesn't do much for the rafting companies, which normally operate six to 10 hours a day, five days a week.

Gilliam and others who make a living guiding rafters down the Ocoee remain hopeful they will fare better in the rest of the summer.

"When the weather heats up, more people want to get on the river," said Keith Jenkins, head of Quest Expeditions and former president of the Ocoee Outfitters Association.

The rafters also hope the Tennessee Valley Authority, the federal utility that controls the flow of the Ocoee, doesn't push for too much money from rafters when TVA begins renegotiating its contract for how Ocoee's water is split between power generation for TVA along its flume line or riverbed flow for whitewater rafting and kayaking. The current contracts for both the upper and middle portions of the Ocoee expire in 2018, and rafters hope to reach new agreements well in advance of that date.

Rafters now pay a $1 tax on the middle portion of the Ocoee and a $4 fee for the upper Ocoee section, which was the site of the 1996 Olympics whitewater competition. Those fees go to TVA to help recoup the cost of diverting the water from a flume line to generate power to the riverbed for whitewater rafting. TVA loses hydroelectric generation when the river flows for rafters, rather than for electricity generation.

TVA gave a preliminary estimate to rafters suggesting that the value of the water diverted from power generation to whitewater rafting could cost the utility nearly $9 million over a five-year period.

"We don't mind paying for the water," Jenkins said. "We just want reasonable costs for the water, and I don't know how viable it would be if we have to add $9 or $10 for every rider. That could hurt what has grown into a significant industry for this region."

A study by the University of Tennessee done this spring for the rafting industry found that the Ocoee is the No. 1 whitewater river for rafting in the country and the commercial rafting industry helps pump $43 million a year into the local economy.

Despite the cooler spring, the Ocoee still boasts one of the warmest whitewater rivers in the U.S. and one that is within a day's drive of nearly half of the U.S. population.

"We have a great, accessible river, and I tell people all the time that this is an ideal river to find out about whitewater rafting and kayaking," McPherson said. "There's enough thrill and excitement for most everyone without pushing it too close to the edge."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340