A wet weather system that unexpectedly rolled up from North Carolina did produce Watauga Lake’s highest water level on record, but it also has set in place what Tennessee Valley Authority officials said Thursday will be a first-rate fill for summer recreation.
The word of choice among local emergency management personnel and lake dwellers has more times than not been “inconvenience,” not “disaster,” after the record high of 1,966.5 feet above sea level water mark at Watauga had many feeling antsy about their safety.
“It just rained and rained and rained,” said Chuck Bach, TVA general manager of river scheduling, during an annual visit to the Johnson City Press that just happened to coincide with the recent rains. “We get 60 percent of our rainfall between January and March. The last couple of weekends we’ve been moving water out but we’re also using that water to fill our reservoirs. It’s put us 30 percent ahead of normal for (power generation purposes).”
Bach said he expects the “summer pool” — the lake levels from June 1 through Labor Day — to be at their prime heights for those who plan to recreate during that time.
TVA on Thursday was releasing 1.4 million gallons of water a minute into the Watauga River. That’s 23,500 gallons per second. Bach said the water is being released through turbines and sluices (sliding gates) below the dam at a powerhouse and that water will continue to be released at this pace for between seven and 10 days.
The forecast calls for rain again today, but not to worry.
“That should not be an issue,” he said. “It really doesn’t concern me, because it’s probably not going to be over 1 inch. We’ve got a full pool for summer, and we’ve crested. And you should begin to see that go down.”
Bach said the TVA stays in contact with the National Weather Service, which has forecast about 1 inch of rain per week through the recreation season.
“This last system was big — it was a big storm,” he said. “As it came by it sat right over Watauga Lake. As soon as we saw how high the levels were getting, I had our inspectors go out and they found no dangerous conditions.”
He did not dismiss the amount of rain that has fallen in the region and said the TVA’s 20,000-sqaure-mile watershed has been 7.5 inches above normal since January. But because TVA is able to lower levels and move water into rivers and tributaries, there have been no major problems.
“In January alone, we calculated that we averted $800 million in damage that would have occurred if we had not had dams in place and methods with which to displace the water.”
Travis Brickey, TVA spokesman, and Patricia Bernard Ezzell, TVA historian, also visited the Press on Thursday.
Brickey said TVA responded to the rising waters by opening the sluice gates and releasing water as quickly as the Watauga could carry it away, making sure the river is full but not overflowing its banks.
The highest water level in the lake’s history did put a scare into some, but the resulting damage has been minimal. The record level exceeded the previous high water mark by 3 feet.
Meanwhile, TVA is celebrating its 80th anniversary May 18, and Ezzell ran through a brief history and displayed some photographs taken over that time. The Press will publish a report on TVA’s anniversary on May 20.
For information on reservoirs, including observed and predicted elevations and releases at TVA dams, reservoir operating guides, dissolved oxygen improvements, fish population survey results, recreation facilities and more, go to www.tva.com/river/lakeinfo.
The Press also publishes local lake levels daily on Page 3A.