Hard truths about Boone Dam


By Scott Robertson

To all the good people who live or work on or around Boone Lake and whose quality of life has been impacted by the lowering of the lake levels for repairs on Boone Dam: It’s sad and unfortunate that you are having to go through this. Please know the rest of us sympathize with you. We hope and pray TVA can beat its projected time frame for repairs.

Having said that, there is a very important fact that, as of last month’s public information session hosted by TVA, with which some folks whose primary area of concern is upstream of the dam have yet to fully come to terms.

None of what’s happening with these repairs is really about you. Your problems, while potentially all-consuming from your own perspective, really don’t drive TVA’s decision-making model much at all. Oh, TVA will build a couple of long boat ramps for you. It’ll do what it can to deal with your problems on its own terms, but its attention is really focused elsewhere.

The most important people being considered in TVA’s deliberations on how to repair the dam are those downstream from the dam, not those upstream.

Why? Because no one faces a safety threat upstream.

There are a couple of time-frames upstreamers have railed against. The first is the one-to-two-week window they would like TVA to provide so they can retrieve their beached boats. It doesn’t, on the surface, sound like an unreasonable request. The surface, however, is far from what matters, both literally and figuratively.

TVA has to weigh the safety of everyone downstream against upstreamers’ opportunity to retrieve their boats. So TVA asks itself, ‘What’s the worst that could happen if we raise the water level for a week or two to let these boat owners liberate their watercraft?’

Well, the increased stress on the dam could cause the dam to fail. Water could flow, uncontrolled by TVA, downstream where, in a few miles, it would come to a city with a riverside chemical plant. I think if we’re still talking about the worst-case scenario, you can take it from there as far as economic and environmental concerns go – especially when you consider the fact that Boone Dam is near the top of the watershed that goes through the TVA system into the Mississippi River and down to the Gulf of Mexico.

Actually, just saying, ‘a dam could fail upstream from a city’ is probably enough to outweigh the worst thing that could happen if TVA doesn’t raise the lake level for a week: many of us above the dam will continue to be unable to use our boats.

Let’s take a scenario that’s not even the worst case: If TVA raises the lake for a week, TVA runs the risk of invalidating every piece of information it gathered over the last eight months in determining what corrective action to take. TVA has been charting the piping in the karst to know exactly how to go about stopping the seepage. Should the water level be raised, increased pressure could alter the underground network of cracks, fissures and tunnels through which the water has been seeping. Then TVA would need to go back and redo all those studies.

The other time frame is, of course, the five-to-seven year total repair project run-time. When it was announced in the public information session, people in the crowd began hollering, “Unacceptable!”

One public information session attendee floated the notion that TVA should just buy the houses along the lakeside at full pre-drawdown value, hold them until the work is done, then sell them for a nice profit.

As nice as it sounds, this is a terrible idea. In fact, there’s a name for it. It’s called a government bailout. Most of us don’t like that sort of thing. In fact, I’d be willing to bet a month’s mortgage that the majority of the people who own lakefront property are, except in this instance, fiscal conservatives.

TVA is not responsible for propping up lakefront home values. TVA is responsible for power generation, flood control, and safety around and downstream from its facilities. Nowhere does that include homeowners’ property value insurance.

Were TVA to start buying up houses, it would have to actually put time, money and effort into maintaining those properties, either directly or by renting them out.

TVA as a landlord? What could possibly go wrong? TVA is built to be a residential property management company in much the same way your average jackhammer operator is built to be a prima ballerina.

At some point we will all have to face the fact that the people in charge of this repair have years of experience at fixing dams, and, despite all our notions about how things should happen, we have none.

At some point we will have to stop yelling, “Unacceptable!” and come to the realization that it’s not about what we are willing to accept.

It’s about what has to be done.


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