HAMPTON — The highest water level in the history of Watauga Lake, 1,966 feet above sea level, has proven to be more of an inconvenience than a disaster, with picnic areas closed and marinas having to shuffle boats and extend docks. The level exceeds the previous high water mark by 3 feet.
The Emergency Management Agencies in both Carter and Johnson counties have had no reports of property damage from the high waters and Carter County 911 said it has received no calls about property damage.
While not yet officially reported, Tony Weaver of Fish Springs Marina said the high waters did get into three campers parked close to the shore. The campers were unoccupied at the time. She said about a foot of water got into one.
Few permanent structures were reached by the waters. The public restrooms at Fish Springs and at Lakeshore Marina were flooded.
The biggest structure affected by the high waters was the fishing pier at Rat Branch. It was submerged, leaving no trace. The Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency will have to wait for the waters to recede to assess damage.
That was the only impact the water had on the TWRA. Travis Brickey, a spokesman for the Tennessee Valley Authority, said the agency has not reported any damage to its recreation areas.
The Cherokee National Forest sustained the most inconvenience from the high water. Spokeswoman Alice Cohen said several recreation areas have been inundated and some have been temporarily closed until the water recedes. The Shook Branch swimming area has been closed. Also closed is the lakeside loop road at Watauga Point Recreation Area, but the upper road and parking areas at Watauga Point remain open for picnicking.
Cohen said other National Forest public areas have been impacted by the high water but remain open. These include the boat ramps at Rat Branch, Little Milligan Little Oak and Sink Mountain and the swimming area at Jacob’s Creek. “All of the sites currently closed will be reopened as waters recede to safer levels and recreation facilities are no longer impacted.” Cohen said in a news release.
The reservoir remained steady all day at its new high water mark of 1,966.4. That was good news for campers at the Bayview Campground in Butler. The water at several of the campers was up to the wheels and one was up to the bumper. Campground co-owner Steve Bentley said a few more inches and the water would enter the campers.
Campground manager Bob Graybeal said there was no time to remove the campers.
“The water came up so fast, there was no way to get them out,” he said.
Bentley said TVA is supposed to provide warnings when the waters are rising to unusual levels, but he received no warning. His clues came Monday morning, when he saw the water had reached a gazebo. Just a few hours later, the water was creeping well past the gazebo and covering a road. Since then, he has launched paddle boats on what used to be a children’s playground.
“We like water, that is why we are here, but not quite this much water,” Bentley said. If the waters do not rise any more, Bentley said his campground would have no damage other than just cleaning up.
Both Bentley and Weaver asked why TVA was not releasing water from the dam Friday and Saturday before a 5-to-6-inch deluge led to the rapid rise.
Brickey said the reason was because downstream, the Tennessee River was swollen with water that was threatening to flood in such places as northern Alabama. To prevent that disaster, Brickey said water in the tributaries, such as the Watauga, were being held to allow the levels in the main channel to drop. He said the original plan had been to begin releasing water from the Watauga on Monday. No one anticipated the cloudburst directly above the lake on Monday.
TVA has responded to the rising waters by opening the sluice gates and releasing water as quickly as the Watauga can carry it away, making sure the river is full but not overflowing its banks.
According to Chuck Bach, TVA general manager of river scheduling, the record levels seen at Watauga have somewhat leveled off and they don’t anticipate the water getting any higher.
“Our projections are for it to go down about a foot by (Friday),” Bach said.
He said they have been running the hydroelectric turbines 24 hours a day, as well as running water out of the sluice gates.
“These are low-level outlets in the dam and the combination of that running into the turbines and sluices is what we’re doing to pull the reservoir down. We can’t run just an unlimited amount because then it would get out of the banks in the river below Watauga Dam, so we’re trying to balance it so that we’re right at the edge of the banks of the river downstream,” Bach said.
He said the river beneath the dam will remain full for several days until they are able to pull the reservoir back down to the summer pool level.
According to TVA’s website, by 7 p.m. Wednesday, Fort Patrick Henry’s reservoir elevation behind the dam was 1,260.96, Boone Lake’s elevation was at 1,382.21 and Watauga Lake was at 1,966.46.
Watauga Dam’s discharge has remained steady all day Wednesday at around 3,140 cubit feet per second. Wilbur Dam, just downstream, has been averaging a discharge of around 3,200.
Press Staff Writer Jennifer Sprouse contributed to this story.