High and dry: Fontana boat dock owners losing money as TVA lowers lake

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

One of the driest periods in the last 118 years is prompting TVA to draw down waters on Fontana Lake to wintertime levels, a move costing boat dock owners thousands of dollars of business.

“This is our livelihood. We’re losing money left and right,” said Ken Konrad with Greasy Branch Marina.

The three docks on the Swain County side of the lake — Alarka, Greasy Branch and Almond — say they’ll be closed by Labor Day, typically one of the top money-making weekends of the season.

Last week, Alarka Boat Dock owner Tony Sherrill was nearly impossible to track down as he raced to move houseboats out of a fast-drying marina in 90-degree temperatures.

“Last year, we weren’t moving houses until the first of November,” Sherrill said.

Pointing to the remaining water in his marina, he said “that’ll be gone in two weeks.” Sherrill heard two days earlier that TVA would continue to draw down water a foot a day over an eight-day period. TVA claims it needs the water to generate power and to keep the Tennessee River navigable for barge traffic.

Sherill, who is chalking up the months of September, October and November as a loss, has mixed feelings about TVA drawdown of the lake. Though he understands the region is experiencing a drought, he said he doesn’t think they should ever pull the lake to these levels.

Greasy Branch Marina owners Katie and Ken Konrad share Sherrill’s concern. They’ve owned their dock for four years, and say this has been the most challenging year yet.

“We’re trying to make the best (of the situation). We’re freaking out but we’ll try to stay open as long as we can,” Katie said. “The last thing we’re normally worried about is business dying.”

The Konrads say they are constantly moving boats to keep them off the ground. They said the dock they were sitting on, which was resting in several feet of water, would have to be moved that night or it would be on dry ground by the morning.

The Konrads are particularly frustrated with TVA’s lack of communication with dock owners.

“How can they just ignore the fact that there are six businesses out there?” Katie said. “Nobody calls us and tells us what’s going on — we don’t know what to tell our customers. There’s no talk, no consultation. That part’s really frustrating.”

“If this would ever happen again, there needs to be communication — something’s got to come of this,” she added.

Though TVA spokesman Gil Francis insists the company keeps up optimal communication about lake levels, Almond Marina and RV Park owner Jo Mathis begs to differ.

“No representative from TVA has come in years” to talk about lake levels, Mathis said. Someone does come out occasionally to talk about pumps and water quality, but “he’s in another department of TVA.”

At Almond Boat and RV Park, the situation is increasingly dire. As the oldest and largest marina on Fontana, Almond will likely suffer a bit less than Alarka and Greasy Branch. Still, Mathis said, “there’s not much positive about it.”

Mathis said she’s never seen the lake at levels like this except in 1986, and even then Almond still had operational water through Labor Day.

She worries about the snowball effect a poor season will have on her employees.

“Fontana is so deep that they think they’re not affecting anybody by pulling it, but they ought to drive out here and see,” Mathis said of TVA.


TVA serves many masters

Francis insists that TVA is not targeting Fontana more than any other reservoir in its system.

“Every reservoir is being drawn equitably based on how much water is in the system. We’re not drawing any more water out of Fontana than we are out of another facility. Fontana is deep, other reservoirs are very, very shallow. Every reservoir is managed in a balanced fashion,” Francis said.

TVA is currently being forced to provide as much power as needed with less than adequate water levels. Electricity, flood mitigation and navigation needs all take priority over recreation in the TVA system, Francis said.

“When it’s very, very dry, we’re trying to stretch every drop of water. TVA is not the reason that the marinas’ season is impacted, it’s the weather,” he said.

Dock owners, though, question if the impact on their season is indeed fair. They disagree with some of TVA’s estimates of Fontana’s levels.

Last week, TVA reports showed Fontana to be 27 to 30 feet below normal levels. Mathis and Konrad estimated the levels were closer to 40 feet below normal, while Sherrill said it was closer to 50 feet. Full, Fontana is 1,710 feet deep.

In terms of numbers, Fontana is experiencing the biggest drawdown of any of TVA’s reservoirs. The next biggest drawdown is at Hiawassee in Western North Carolina, down 17 feet. Douglas Lake in eastern Tennessee is down 15 feet. However, these lakes aren’t comparable in the amount of hydropower produced. Fontana’s generating capacity is 293,600 kilowatts of electricity. Kentucky Reservoir has a capacity of 223,100 kilowatts and is at normal levels. Bigger producers of hydropower — like Wheeler and Wilson reservoirs in northern Alabama — are also at normal levels. Some of these reservoirs are along the main navigation channels, though; Fontana is considered a tributary.

The hydropower produced by TVA services a small portion of North Carolina — around 30,000 households in five counties, most of which are in the northwestern part of the state. In contrast, Fontana’s power is being distributed throughout the TVA system in six other states.

Francis cautions against placing too much emphasis on state boundaries. Rather, TVA constructed its system from an environmental standpoint, using watersheds as a guide.

“It’s not like we built Fontana to serve the area outside of North Carolina — we built Fontana to protect the watershed, and North Carolina is a part of that,” Francis said.

Francis acknowledges that dock owners are facing difficult times with the low lake levels at Fontana, but says this is happening all over the system. He doesn’t think TVA is responsible for compensating the dock owners in any way for a loss of business due to drawdown.

“It’s not something TVA has control over, and it’s not something TVA has done. We’re simply managing what little water we have,” Francis insists.

Mathis, though, doesn’t think TVA plans to quit lowering water levels on Fontana, even if the region comes out of a drought next season.

“For years, we went to every meeting, and we fought all that we could fight, and nobody listened, so we just gave up on it. They’ll do whatever they want to do anyway. They have an explanation for everything,” she said.

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