Tennessee Valley Authority has flooded more than 640,000 acres of land over the years with dams such as this one at Fontana Lake in North Carolina.
Often recognized for their beauty and recreational opportunities, the reservoirs of the southern mountains fuel local economies, provide clean drinking water, power homes and businesses, and protect countless acres of farmland from flooding.
It's hard to imagine many areas of the southern Appalachians and their foothills without lakes. For decades, they have been part of the fabric of the landscape, particularly in places like East Tennessee, where a myriad of reservoirs provide flood control, water quality, hydroelectric power and, more familiarly perhaps, recreation. But at the beginning of the last century, no one could have imagined the importance of reservoirs to our everyday lives.
The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which maintains 49 dams in six states as well as a string of coal plants and nuclear power facilities, is probably the agency most familiar to us when we think of southern reservoirs and their associated benefits and drawbacks. Established in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, TVA ultimately flooded more than 640,000 acres of land, and while that figure may seem tragic, it is also important to remember that TVA brought to life a long-suffering agrarian economy.
By 1940, TVA distributors had brought electricity to some 318,000 rural residential customers and more than 61,000 businesses. It also brought tens of thousands of jobs, controlled the persistent flooding from which the Tennessee Valley had long suffered and vastly improved the standard of living of the region.
But the positive human benefits did not come without their problems. Reneé Hoyos, executive director of the Tennessee Clean Water Network, says that while she recognizes the prosperity TVA brought to a severely economically depressed region, she cautions against forgetting the less positive impacts of reservoirs.
"TVA displaced a number of people and buried farmland," she says. "Dams can provide an economic driver, but they also displace people."
From an environmental perspective, damming up rivers can kill off healthy waterways and negatively impact aquatic life.
"Dams are a double-edge sword," Hoyos explains, noting that when drought conditions prevail, wars over who receives the benefits of water begin.
Chuck Bach, river scheduling manager with TVA, admits his job is a tough one when water demands are high and resources are low.
"We operate our system for several objectives – navigation, flood reduction, hydropower, recreation and water supply," he explains. For the last three years, the Tennessee Valley has been in drought mode, and that means TVA has had to balance all of these competing demands on its system. While he points out that TVA has successfully managed all these water needs, he acknowledges that people complain when reservoirs aren't at full pond.
"It has really been a challenge to get people to see it as an entire river system and not just 'my lake,'" Bach says.
Recreational users of reservoirs often also fail to consider that the lakes they enjoy for boating and fishing serve multiple purposes, not the least of which is clean water supply. Hoyos advises reservoir recreational users to consider that the next time they take off on a jet ski.
"If you're polluting a reservoir or river," she explains, "that all goes into somebody's drinking water."
Patrick Sheridan, Warm Springs district ranger on the George Washington National Forest in Virginia, understands competing water demands and sees it on a much smaller scale every day with the operation of the popular Lake Moomaw, a reservoir designed for flood control but which has become an increasingly important tourist draw for the small community of Bath County.
A few years ago when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed increasing lake levels, Sheridan as well as the local tourism-dependent community became concerned over the possibility of losing most of Lake Moomaw's infrastructure, including campgrounds, marina and boat docks. The increase in pond levels never materialized, for which Sheridan is grateful.
"I think everyone agrees Lake Moomaw is a very large draw to visitors," he says.
But that doesn't mean everyone agrees about the lake's uses. Because of Moomaw's increasing popularity among campers, boaters and fishermen, conflicts are growing, particularly between those who come to fish on the lake and those who come to recreate in power boats.
"There is tension among the different uses, and we anticipate conflicts in the future," Sheridan says.
Hoyos offers all of us an important reminder when it comes to enjoying our mountain reservoirs: "A lot of pollution goes on with fun on the water. Think about that next time you're driving your boat over a once thriving community or on someone else's drinking water."