A coalition of private and public groups met along the Ocoee River on Monday to usher in the 2018 commercial paddling season and look ahead to an overhaul of the current system.
This lame-duck season will be the final year under an agreement reached in 1984 that allowed commercial paddling on what is now America's most-trafficked commercial paddling river. A new 15-year contract was reached last year and will take effect next paddling season. Had it not been reached, outfitters and officials feared one of the region's largest outdoor attractions would have been washed away.
"Today is a day of thanks," U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn, said. "It is a day of celebration, but I think most importantly, it's an example for our schoolchildren, for our leaders, when people get together with the goal of getting something positive done anything can happen. Today is a legacy day for the great state of Tennessee."
The contract among state and federal agencies, the Tennessee Valley Authority and paddling outfitters compensates TVA for power generation lost when the river is flowing. During nonpaddling days, which are Tuesdays and Wednesdays, TVA diverts the water through a wooden flume — a large wooden structure that runs above the river — to create power. The process leaves the river barren.
Under the new agreement, called the Ocoee River Recreation and Economic Development Fund Act, the state will compensate TVA for lost power generation, and outfitters will pay the state a 10 percent licensing fee for reimbursement. In general, rafting companies will owe between $3.50 and $4.50 more per ticket than they did under the previous deal.
The act, passed by the Tennessee General Assembly in 2017, creates a fund and governing board to carry out the agreement.
Tennessee State Parks will be responsible for overseeing rafting activities and the permits outfitters need to operate on the river. The state will oversee general operations and maintenance as well as emergency first response, law enforcement, traffic management and more.
The groups spent nearly five years discussing the deal. Details are still being finalized, but the companies and agencies involved will use the next several years to learn how the changes will fully impact paddling management.
"It's a new thing for everybody: the state, TVA, the Forest Service and us," Quest Expeditions owner Keith Jenkins said. "But it has the ability to take the river to a different level. It's going to provide economic development and management on the river. It's going to be something that we're getting done that hasn't been done anywhere else. It will really improve economic development in this area."
All parties will operate under the current agreement for the remainder of the year, and while the new agreement is a year ahead of schedule, it's a relief for the owners of paddling outfitters.
"There's certain things we need to prepare for next year," Ocoee River Outfitter Association president and Ocoee Adventure Rafting owner Rob Paden said. "It's really a nice heads-up so that we can have an idea of what's happening next year. That allows us to make future plans and invest in our companies."
Outfitters are also ahead of schedule on their payments and have met their financial obligations under the current agreement, meaning they can operate this season without owing a fee.
The groups do not expect commercial paddlers visiting the Ocoee River to notice a difference in their experience because the historic agreement affects the operations of the managing agencies and not recreational water users.
Monday's ceremony also served as a kickoff for the 2018 paddling season. Outfitters now are running commercial trips on weekends and will operate five days a week from Memorial Day to Labor Day. TVA will continue power generation Tuesdays and Wednesdays.