Lake half-full, lake half-empty


By Dave Ongie

Thoughts and attitudes toward the extended drawdown of Boone Lake depend greatly on one’s perspective. For those who own property on the reservoir, Boone Lake seems half empty. For those who are still able to drive down and enjoy most of the same recreation activities they’ve engaged in for years, the reservoir appears half full.

There was plenty of water in the reservoir to host the U.S. Title Series professional boat races in early September. The organization held a race on Boone Lake that featured around 80 competitors, and the event organizers came away impressed. “It’s breathtaking,” said Ray Rodda, who works with the series. “It’s probably the most scenic course we run.”

There is no denying that Boone Lake has always generated plenty of revenue. According to a study conducted by the University of Tennessee, the reservoir supports 800,000 annual recreational visits, which translates into an annual total economic impact of $130 million.

For those who are drawn to the lake for recreational activities, very little has changed during the Boone Dam Project.

Johnson City resident Chad Jones still regularly hops in his truck with his boat in tow, following a ribbon of two-lane asphalt toward Boone Lake. Sure, he has to put in at a different spot – the boat ramp down by Pickens Bridge would’ve been under water back in the old days – but once he hits the water, it’s just him and the fish.

Chad Jones with a fish he caught on Boone Lake.

“From a fishing standpoint, there really isn’t much difference right now,” Jones said. “I can fish all the way around to where the river comes in on the Watauga side. You can fish all the way back down by (Boone) Dam and you can go all the way around to Davis Boat Dock, which is still pretty far.”

After spending so much time on the lake over the years, Jones can certainly sense the banks have closed in a bit since the Boone Dam Project led to an extended drawdown of the reservoir. Some of his favorite coves are now well above the waterline, but Jones hardly feels claustrophobic on a lake that is still plenty large enough to accommodate fishermen, wakeboarders, boaters and swimmers. “A lot of people say, ‘Gosh, there’s no water.’ But there is still a lot of water left, a lot of fishing, a lot of recreational use,” Jones said.

The TVA went to great lengths to minimize the ill effects of the drawdown. Jerry G. Foust, TVA Recreation Strategist and Tourism Development Specialist, pointed to the work done by the TVA to improve access to the water for boaters, swimmers and those who reach the lake from public shorelines.

“We spent time and effort getting the boat ramps extended, particularly at Devault (Bridge) and Pickens Bridge so that the boaters would have access,” Foust said. “We worked with some of the public shoreline areas to make sure they still had access to the shoreline for shoreline fishing. At the dam reservation, we put in the new beach and the picnic area.”

Water quality is a big concern, as is the health of the fish population. On both fronts, collaboration has been key to keeping Boone Lake healthy while the project continues. Foust said the unique partnership between the TVA, private citizens, local governments and other federal agencies has allowed the sailing to be relatively smooth on the reservoir during the Boone Dam Project.

“We have tremendous partnerships with the Boone Lake Association, the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency and the local communities there in working toward water quality activities, working on the reseeding of the perimeter around the reservoir for habitat purposes and stabilization of the shoreline,” Foust said.

On the other hand, homeowners like Julie Newman have tried to figure out how to maintain the exposed lakebed in their backyards. This year, the Newmans called in an expert to trim back the lush growth that has sprouted up in areas that used to be under water. “This season, we had some trees,” Julie Newman said.  “I’m not going to call them brush. These things, they have stumps, some of them, with maybe a five-inch diameter.”

Technically, homeowners on Boone Lake own the land that has traditionally sat underwater during the summer months when the lake has been at its ordinary high-water mark. The TVA has an easement that allows them to flood this land up to an elevation of 1,382 feet, but with repairs to the dam ongoing, the lakebed that now remains exposed year-round has created its fair share of unforeseen circumstances.

While the lakebed may look like part of the backyard, everything below the ordinary high-water mark is under the jurisdiction of five government agencies. The TVA, Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Tennessee Department of Agriculture (TDA) and Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency (TWRA) all have a vested interest in activities that take place on the lakebed.

That has created its fair share of challenges, which will certainly remain in place as the project wears on. But thanks to plenty of cooperation and a healthy population of fish, Boone Lake will remain open for business. That’s great news for Jones and many others. “Fishing’s good,” Jones said. “For me, it’s not changed much.”

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