Historic agreement saves rafting on the Ocoee River [video, photos]

A group rafts with Ocoee Rafting Friday, June 30, 2017, on the Ocoee River in Polk County, Tenn. The Tennessee Valley Authority recently came to an agreement with rafting outfitters that will keep their business afloat.

A historic private/public partnership finalized by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam saved whitewater rafting on America's most popular rafting venue and laid the groundwork for future deals.

The agreement ensures the Ocoee will flow for rafting season for at least 15 more years while compensating Tennessee Valley Authority for lost power revenue.

"Representative Dan Howell and I were so thankful that the governor realized the importance of this river and the impact it has on southeast Tennessee," said state Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, who helped broker the deal with Howell, R-Georgetown.

Hundreds of thousands of people raft the Ocoee each year, making it the most visited rafting venue in the U.S., according to a study by the University of Tennessee. It is also a playground for kayakers, hosted the 1996 Olympic games, and is the biggest economic driver for the towns and county along its banks.

It is the biggest employer in Polk County, Bell said. With an economic impact of $43.8 million in the area, it provides more than 600 jobs, according to the study.

"It would have been devastating [if a deal hadn't been reached]," Howell said. "We would have lost 623 jobs. And that's just existing jobs."

TVA used the river for the better part of a century to generate power by diverting Ocoee River water to create hydroelectric power. The process leaves the Ocoee looking more like a calm creek than a raging river, making it unraftable. Previous deals dating back more than 40 years allowed TVA to generate hydroelectric power at some of the cheapest power costs in the country while releasing water 116 days a year for rafters to use the river. That deal was set to expire in 2018.

Negotiations have been nearly a decade in the making and proved treacherous at times.

"There were some federal guidelines and regulations that made it a difficult and time-consuming process to reach a conclusion," Bell said. "It was somewhat difficult. No other river in the United States has to deal with a federal agency for water release.

"There was some concern [a deal wouldn't be reached], but we always thought it would get done."

The previous deal gave TVA $6.5 million, but TVA wanted more compensation before a new agreement could be reached. Rafting companies warned stiff fees could put them out of business, and no deal meant no rapids to raft.

Some of the rafting companies' biggest customers are church camps, said Jimbo Kibler with Ocoee Inn Rafting. If fees to TVA went up drastically, causing a spike in ticket prices, most of those customers would be unable to come, he said.

The river is also a popular place for families looking for a thrilling vacation, such as the Hastings from Louisiana.

Robert Hastings and his daughter came to the Ocoee for a father-daughter vacation. The rest of the family stayed home because his youngest aren't old enough to raft.

Hasting accidentally stumbled upon the news conference announcing the deal Friday. He soon learned that without the new deal, rafting would have been gone from the Ocoee by the time his youngest children were old enough to participate.

The new deal not only means he can bring the rest of the family in the future, but one day, maybe they can bring their own children.

"We came here specifically to raft the Ocoee," he said. "When we've come to the area to come camping, we've stopped at the Olympic center to watch them come down [the river.] And this is something we've always wanted to do. This is fantastic. There's nothing that compares to it - as far as camping and outdoor adventure - to bring families together."

State politicians got involved to make sure more families like the Hastings continue to come to the area. They helped broker the deal between the state, rafting companies, TVA and the National Forest Service.

For TVA, the deal checks all three key categories of its mission.

"Our mission is to provide reliable electricity, [and] support environmental stewardship and economic development in the Tennessee Valley," said Justin Maierhofer, TVA vice president of government relations.

It also touches on something the federal agency has aimed to do since 1933.

"When President Franklin Roosevelt signed the TVA Act back in the early 1930s, one of the things he said was that electricity is a secondary matter," Maierhofer said. "What TVA is all about is improving the quality of life for people who live in the Tennessee Valley."

The deal does just that, Maierhofer said, but it also provides TVA with funds to continue providing power at its existing rates. The new deal gives TVA $11.8 million, paid for by the state, to make up for 15 years of future lost power generation during rafting season.

The funds were provided in the state budget that went into effect July 1. Rafting companies will repay the state approximately $4 per ticket, a deal they say will more than pay for itself.

This deal was negotiated with not only the next 15 years in mind, but also the distant future. Lawmakers believe the groundwork in this deal will make it easier to ensure rafting continues on the Ocoee for generations to come.

"What this does is provide stability to an industry that was uncertain," Howell said.

Contact staff writer Mark Pace at mpace@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6361. Follow him on Twitter @themarkpace.