TVA to make a decision on houseboats May 5

fr houseboats2Tennessee Valley Authority officials have confirmed that its board of directors will make a decision on May 5 regarding the future of houseboats on all of its 49 lakes and reservoirs.

TVA has proposed having all floating houses removed from its lakes within the next 20 years, and if the proposed policy passes, houseboat owners will have to remove houses at their own expense. Removal of a houseboat could cost $10,000 or more depending on its size. 

The decision will impact some 1,800 houseboats, including 350 houseboats on Fontana Lake in Swain and Graham counties. Opponents of the proposed sunset clause plan to pack the TVA board meeting for their last chance at public comment. Swain County Commissioner David Monteith said he plans to be there to present the resolution commissioners passed a couple of weeks ago opposing the measure as it will hurt the county’s tax revenue and the region’s tourism and recreation industry.  

Other counties have also passed resolutions opposing the proposed policy, including Graham and Haywood counties. Cherokee Tribal Council also passed a resolution opposing the policy change. 

As more public opposition forms over the TVA’s proposal, Rebecca Tolene, TVA vice president of natural resources, sent out a prepared opinion letter to media outlets last week entitled “TVA’s Reservoirs Available for Everyone – Not Just a Few.” 

Tolene said the TVA built dams on the Tennessee River to tame its floods, produce electricity and use its waters for navigation. She said houseboats went against the TVA’s mission to support recreation that is enjoyed by millions of people every year.

“It is important to remember that floating houses moored on TVA’s reservoirs take for private use this public resource,” she wrote. “They pose navigation and safety risks, and they degrade water quality.”

Despite being prohibited on TVA’s reservoirs since 1978, Tolene said, the number of floating houses has increased and will continue to proliferate unless the TVA takes action against them. 

Houseboat owner Karen Jenkins said that statement from Tolene was infuriating and untrue. In 1978, the TVA changed its houseboat policy by grandfathering in the existing houseboats with valid TVA permits and prohibiting any new ones from being built on the lakes. Jenkins argues the TVA hasn’t been enforcing its own regulations, which is why new floating houses have emerged over the years.

Michael Wilks, president of the Tennessee Valley Floating Home Alliance, said the TVA’s failure to enforce its own regulations is what has led to the over-abundance of floating houses that don’t meet the current standards. 

“So, for over three decades, TVA’s long-term and near complete ambivalence toward the enforcement of its own regulations since 1978 created, even if unintentionally, a different unwritten understanding or standard,” Wilks said. “It is this standard of non-enforcement and tolerance for new construction, which was the reality for a long time, on which floating home owners reasonably relied for many years as they plowed tens of millions of dollars in new investments into their new or existing floating homes.”

Not only would houseboat owners lose their property investments, local marinas would lose a majority of their income if houseboat management is no longer part of their business. Fontana has five marinas that have leases with the TVA or National Forest Service to manage the shores. 

Houseboat owners also disagree with Tolene’s assertion that houseboats are polluting the water. Houseboat owners on Fontana Lake are required to have a contract with an outside company for waste removal to ensure sewage isn’t being dumped in the lake. Independent water quality studies done on Fontana show the water is clean enough to drink for the most part and the pollution that does enter the lake is from the many tributaries feeding into it. 

“The number one pollutant in Boone Lake in Johnson City is from farm animals, not floating homes,” Jenkins said. “I know that from reading TVA’s 300-plus page environmental report. Did Ms. Tolene read it?”

Wilks agrees that the TVA’s environmental report did not present any data showing issues with water quality. 

Tolene wrote in her letter that the TVA heard from people on all sides of the issue and considered all public input. She said many people wanted the houses removed immediately while others, primarily the houseboat owners, wanted the TVA to allow existing houses to stay as long as they complied with safety and water quality standards. She said the TVA recommendation is a compromise that recognizes the investment floating house owners have made.

“The policy regarding floating houses requires a difficult decision and one that is consistent with our mission of stewardship as outlined in the TVA Act,” she wrote. “We believe we are proposing the best path forward to being good stewards of public lands while providing a reasonable solution to the existing circumstances.” 

Fontana houseboat owners Erik and Laura Sneed have organized a group on Facebook — Fontana Families for Floating Houses — and created a petition against the TVA proposal. The petition has more than 3,000 signatures and was submitted to the TVA. 

Erik Sneed attended a recent Regional Resource Stewardship Council meeting in which the houseboat issue was discussed. He said Tolene’s comments during that meeting made it clear she was emotionally invested in the decision to get rid of the floating houses. 

“Her words at one point in the discussion yesterday was that she was hell bent to force a decision on this issue — a tone that carries into the message presented in her press release,” he said. “It seems inappropriate for a member and legal counsel of a federal corporation to issue a statement like this one that seems to be based more on an opinion that a few are taking advantage of a public resource in an improper or illegal manner. It casts an entire group of individuals into a negative light that is arguably undeserved.”

The Smoky Mountain News attempted to get a phone interview with Tolene prior to the May 5 meeting to get more specifics on the TVA’s lack of enforcement and alleged water quality issues, but was informed by TVA communications staff that she didn’t have time in her schedule. 



Learn more

The Tennessee Valley Authority Board of Directors will vote on the Non-Navigable, Floating Homes Policy during a 9 a.m. meeting Thursday, May 5, at Paris Landing State Park Inn & Conference Center in Buchanan, Tennessee.

The new policy, if approved, will require these private homes, which have been constructed on public waters, to be removed within 20 years. Until then, these homes will have to comply with the latest electrical and sanitary wastewater regulations. 

For more information about the TVA’s proposed policy and the environmental report, visit

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