Last year was the rainiest in 130 years of recorded history for the Tennessee Valley.
This year? It's been even wetter.
Hard, steady rainfall in February drenched the valley and has catapulted the year toward the record books. The Tennessee River is already at peak summer levels normally not seen until the beginning of June. In Chattanooga — which saw 9.7 inches of rain in February — the river reached a designated flood level of 30 feet, or about twice its normal depth.
There was measurable rainfall 22 out of 28 days in February, making 2019 the wettest February ever recoded in the Tennessee Valley, with 169% of normal rainfall.
"Every dam upstream, we started storing water because we know that Chattanooga is potentially one of the most dangerous areas we have for flooding," James Everett from Tennessee Valley Authority's River Forecast Center in Knoxville said.
Waterways upstream in North Carolina, Virginia and other parts of Tennessee funnel into the Tennessee River and through Chattanooga, so while the city didn't set records for rain (it ranked 13th in 2018), the city was still a high priority for TVA employees.
TVA stored 3.58 trillion gallons of water across its system — enough to supply New York City with 10 years of drinking water — as nearly all of the reservoirs on the Tennessee River operated above capacity, according to TVA. Without the dams, the river would have reached 50 feet in the city. At that level, residents would have seen a devastating flood that covered much of Chattanooga and part of the surrounding area.
To date, the city has recorded more than a foot above its normal rainfall for the year, according to Morristown National Weather Service meteorologist Tod Hyslop . However, the city and valley are still below longterm rainfall averages due to extreme weather patterns despite the heavy rain. The valley saw record dry years in both 2007 and 2008 followed by extreme drought in 2016. The 30-year annual average in the valley is typically 51 inches. The last 30 years have been closer to 48 inches.
"It does show that we're back in a pattern where we're moving to the long-term mean. We'll probably have two of the wettest years in TVA history back-to-back," Everett said. "We've hit several climate extremes in the last 10-15 years, but our operating policies have positioned us to handle that."
However, the high water will be good for recreation, according to TVA recreation agreement specialist Heather Sellers. Fishermen and boaters both like high water levels that provide more protection for fish and allow boaters to cruise through the river system. The agency is asking recreationists to use #TVAfun on any photos from TVA areas they post to Instagram
"It's our third or fourth year doing the photos contest, and people can win a GoPro or some other cool items," TVA public relations specialist Malinda Hunter said. "Last year we had over 600 photos, so people have been participating."