New pact for Ocoee whitewater should boost growth on the river

Staff Photo by Tracey Trumbull/Chattanooga Times Free Press - Sunday, May 29, 2011 - A water release by the TVA Sunday, May 29, provided a water playground for rafters and kayakers along the Upper Ocoee River. The section of the river was the whitewater paddling site for the 1996 Olympics.
photo Staff Photo by Tracey Trumbull/Chattanooga Times Free Press - Sunday, June 24, 2012 - Rafters prepare to ride down the Ocoee River Saturday. The region's outfitters keep busy during the summer months.

America's most popular whitewater rafting river should continue to gain visitors and economic growth now that an agreement has been reached with rafters, utility and government officials for the use of the Ocoee River in Polk County, Tenn., officials said Wednesday.

"I think we're going to see more investment now that we have this agreement with all parties to ensure that the river will continue to flow for whitewater rafting for many years to come," said Keith Jenkins, head of Quest Expeditions and president of the Ocoee Outfitters Association. "I think some outfitters have held back due to some uncertainty about the future, but I think you'll see more activity now and you should see more businesses and others move to this area. We're very positive about the future."

At the urging of the rafters and local lawmakers, the state, TVA and the National Forest Service struck an agreement with the commercial rafters who use the Ocoee River to share in the use and payment for the water that flows through the Ocoee gorge nestled in the Cherokee National Forest. Under the plan unveiled this week, the rafters, TVA and state and federal agencies would jointly govern a new Ocoee River Economic Development Recreational Fund paid for with rafting fees and used to repay TVA for lost power and potentially to market the river.

The Tennessee Valley Authority uses the Ocoee River, along with other Tennessee River tributaries and streams, to generate hydroelectric power at some of the cheapest power costs in the country.

But when a TVA flume that carried the Ocoee River water into a TVA hydro dam broke apart four decades ago, the whitewater rapids in the riverbed of the Ocoee quickly proved popular with kayakers, canoeists and rafters who developed an industry around the free-flowing river.

When TVA rebuilt the flume and resumed hydro generation on the Ocoee, an agreement was struck in 1984 to allow the river to flow freely during daylight hours for 116 days a year for rafters to use the river. TVA would use the water the rest of the time for power generation.

To make up for the value of the lost electricity generation when the Ocoee flowed freely in the riverbed, commercial rafters charge a fee to rafters to help repay a $6.5 million federal payment made by the Congress to TVA to offset the cost of the lost power.

That 35-year agreement will expire by 2019, and a new pact has been negotiated between the rafters, TVA, the state and the National Forest Service to create a new funding system and association to control the fees and payments for the use of the river.

In budget amendments unveiled this week by Gov. Bill Haslam, the state has set aside $11.8 million in next year's budget to give to TVA to cover the expense of lost power generation on the Ocoee from whitewater rafting for an additional 15 years. Legislation proposed by state Sen. Mike Bell, R-Rice- ville, and Rep. Dan Howell, R-Georgetown, would create the Ocoee River Recreation and Economic Development Fund to support recreational water releases on the Ocoee.

"We've struck up a unique relationship among the rafters and a number of government agencies and I think the end result will be a simpler, more stable and more efficient system which should make it easier for the outfitters and other businesses to know what to expect," said Joe Hoagland, vice president of stakeholder relations for TVA. "I believe this will be a real help from an economic standpoint for this area."

Customers of the 22 commercial rafting companies that now offer raft trips on either the middle or upper portions of the Ocoee River will pay 10 percent of their ticket price in fees to repay the $11.8 million state grant Haslam is including in next year's budget. That will equal about $4 for each raft trip at current rates, or more than double what the current fee rafters now pay under the current 35-year agreement for use of the Ocoee that Congress adopted in 1984.

Although more than the current rate, Jenkins said the new pact provides certainty that the river will continue to flow. TVA controls the reservoirs that flow into the Ocoee River, ensuring that there is a constant supply of whitewater in the riverbed throughout the summer regardless of the amount of rain upstream.

Hoagland said TVA is recovering most, if not all, of the value of the power lost by diverting the water into the stream for whitewater rafting "and we're also helping to promote tourism and economic development in our region."

In 2012, an economic study by the University of Tennessee estimated that rafting on the Ocoee River had a $43.5 million-a-year economic impact in the 30-county area, supporting 622 jobs.

Last year, 221,995 persons paid for a commercial rafting trip down the Ocoee River, up about 5,000 tickets from the previous year. but still down from the all-time peak of 278,000 reached immediately following the 1996 Summer Olympics, which held the kayaking competition on the Ocoee River.

Contact Dave Flessner at or 423-757-6340.