A day in the life of the three men who keep Boone Lake clean

Jessica Fuller • Updated Oct 28, 2017 at 11:52 PM

It only took a day of rain for a thick sludge filled with trash and debris to congeal in a corner of Boone Lake.

Three men have the task of keeping the lake clean, employees of the Boone Lake Association. They estimate it will take months to clean just that one spot in the lake.

Paid minimum wage with no benefits, they’re the only people who regularly clean the lake. And in a few months, they could be out of a job; then there would be no one to clean the lake. 

On a Thursday afternoon, the three were busy cleaning that section of the lake, about 100 yards across, clustered with logs, trash and a sludge several feet thick. Rains earlier in the week collected trash from along surrounding rivers and beside the lake and pushed it into Boone, resulting in the sludge Aaron Warren said would take a couple of months to completely remove.

With no one cleaning the lake, Warren, the crew’s supervisor, predicted it would get ugly fast.

“Oh, it would be an absolute disaster,” he said. “The trash would pile up and just keep piling up.”

Kyle McKittrick, Keith Britt and Warren are employed through the Boone Lake Association, an environmental association formed in 1983 to monitor water quality in Boone Lake. But since the lake’s extended drawdown for repairs to Boone Dam — repairs the Tennessee Valley Authority  estimates won’t be completed for another five years — membership has been on a sharp decline, and it’s all the association can do to keep its three employees on the payroll month to month.

The association made the plea to the Washington County Committee Health, Education and Welfare Committee for a small slice of the $800,000 impact fee granted by the TVA to no avail. Sullivan County receives the same fee, but officials with the association say that requests to be heard have not yet been returned.

The Johnson City Commission granted $10,000 to the association, which will keep the employees afloat for a couple more months, but officials are still seeking $60,000 — $30,000 each from Washington and Sullivan each — just to keep their employees on payroll for another year.

Warren has been working on the lake for nine years, but he said not knowing whether he’ll be employed in a few months is stressful for him and the other employees.

“I just feel connected here, I love my job,” he said. “I’ve grown up on this lake.”

Because the association is struggling to even pay for its employees, other costs have fallen by the wayside, like boat repairs. Warren said sometimes they are able to fix problems themselves, and  Boone Lake Marina owner Jerry Frank offers repair services, but that still doesn’t cover oil changes, gas or other costs associated with keeping the association’s watercraft in shape and functional.

If membership bounces back, that could help give a little more certainty to the association’s future, but that’s still up in the air. Memberships start at $45 a year, but membership has plummeted from 630 members to 321 members in three years. Warren speculated that many people may believe the Boone Lake Association is a homeowners association, when it’s an environmental association tasked with keeping the lake clean and navigable since people still use the lake throughout the year.

Boone Lake’s trash problem also stems from litter not just around the lake, but around the rivers that flow into it. Over his nine years working there, Warren said he’s found anything you can imagine from dead cattle to thousands of tires to a bottle that exploded in his hand and took some of his finger with it.

“People don’t even have a second thought before they throw something out,” he said. “You would not believe some of the trash that piles up in this lake.”


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Editor’s note: A previous version of this story indicated that Boone Lake’s repairs had six years to go, rather than five.