Balancing the Basin
Optimistic Outlook Despite Seasonal Drought
It’s Friday evening in Knoxville, Tennessee.
As the day draws to a close, long shadows begin to stretch across Suttree Landing Park in the city’s Old Sevier neighborhood. Across the river, the silhouette of the downtown skyline is set against vibrant hues of orange and pink.
The colors shimmer off the river like fire.
On a quiet spot along the shore, Douglas Rudolph has arranged his gear and a few fishing poles. The silence is broken only by small waves that lap against the rocky banks.
Rudolph casts his line into the darkening waters, allowing the silver strand to disappear into the depths. And then he waits.
This, he says, is the best type of therapy there is.
“I come out here to find peace and quiet," he says.
Amid that sacred silence, a question lingers: Will the region get enough rain this season?
Darrell Guinn, senior manager of TVA’s River Forecast Center, speaks to guests at the forecast center in downtown Knoxville.
Waiting for Rain
The Valley region entered a severe drought in September and, as of January, central and southern portions of Tennessee remained in extreme drought.
Unlike a flood, which comes and goes, a drought can last for months.
"The duration ... is uncertain,” Amanda Turk, hydrologic impacts and risk evaluation manager at TVA River Management, said.
Similar conditions struck in 2016-17. That year, a dry winter extended the drought until April, but rains in late spring and early summer alleviated drought conditions by July.
“It’s cyclical,” Turk said. “A drought like this is typical for us every five to 10 years or so. We take it seriously, monitor it closely and communicate effectively. Currently, there are no major concerns. As long as it starts to rain come springtime, things will be OK.”
But few will be watching conditions more closely than the folks inside TVA’s River Forecast Center in downtown Knoxville.
Headquartered on the 10th floor of TVA’s tower, the River Management team works around the clock to monitor regional weather conditions and fine-tune water levels throughout the Tennessee River system.
It's a vast system, encompassing seven states, 49 dams and about 11,000 miles of shoreline.
TVA River Management general manager James Everett explains how his team helps manage river flows in the region’s river system.
Strategies for the Seasons
On a recent midafternoon, the River Management team tracked up-to-the-minute data on bright monitors fixed to a center wall in the forecast center.
One display showed total power generated that day by TVA’s hydro, nuclear, coal and gas plants. Another screen displayed current water levels at TVA’s dams and reservoirs.
These reservoirs, typically situated on tributary rivers that flow into the Tennessee River, are balanced to ensure equitable water withdrawal for downstream needs.
The team calibrates the river system by measuring water levels at Chickamauga Dam near Chattanooga, Tennessee — the location that best indicates water flows in the upper Tennessee River system.
Seasonal rainfall can affect these levels.
“The tributary systems are the providers and maintainers of our water levels,” Darrell Guinn, senior manager of the River Forecast Center said. “As long as Mother Nature does her work, we will operate.”
In spring, TVA fills the reservoirs to ensure higher water levels for recreation, and for water storage in the event of potential drought. While the reservoirs also supply Raccoon Mountain Pumped Storage Plant for periods of increased power demand, the water pumped to Raccoon Mountain is ultimately returned to the river system.
In winter, when vegetation is sparse and there's little resistance to runoff, TVA begins lowering reservoir levels in drawdowns as a preventive measure against flooding.
Weather forecasts from the National Weather Service and the Climate Prediction Center help TVA’s specialists plan for short- and long-term scenarios, guiding their hand as they manage the river system to ensure key benefits for recreation, navigation, water quality and water supply, and power generation.
The Climate Prediction Center currently anticipates drought conditions will remain in the Valley region through January, improving slightly with average to above average rainfall for much of the region leading into March.
Adequate rainfall positions TVA’s hydro system to support power demand through hydroelectric generation.
If rainfall increases around February or March, the River Management team can also continue its cyclical operation of releasing water through dams.
If drought conditions continue, however, reservoir storage will serve as an insurance policy to ensure minimum flows.
The River Management team is in the first phase of its River Drought Management Plan, coordinating with federal agencies, the Tennessee Valley Water Partnership and other partners throughout TVA’s seven states.
Through careful management, tributary storage is currently at 12% above normal, Turk said.
“Because we’re able to maintain minimum flows, we aren’t anticipating any significant impacts to our key benefit areas,” she said.
That’s welcome news to the tens of thousands of people who depend on the river system for recreation, navigation and power generation.
A TVA River Management team member monitors data inside the River Forecast Center.
'A Valuable Asset’
Jon Hooper, general manager of South Holston River Lodge in Bristol, Tennessee, knows full well how water levels and a healthy ecosystem are vital not just to aquatic creatures, but to the region’s economic activity and ecotourism.
In east Tennessee, the South Holston and Watauga rivers are top destinations for wild rainbow and brown trout fishing, luring anglers from across the globe.
“When President Roosevelt started TVA, it wasn’t with the mindset of making a world-class trout fishing destination," Hooper said. "But that’s exactly what happened.”
TVA’s release schedules help regulate water flows and water temperatures to support healthy ecosystems for aquatic creatures while also creating optimal conditions for recreation.
Without proper river management, prolonged drought conditions could cause water temperatures to rise, creating dangerous conditions for trout.
“The fish can’t speak, so we have to speak for them,” Hooper said. “We're really thankful that there is water being pushed down the river, and there's more water between boats, anglers and fish. It’s a huge deal during this time as fish are spawning.”
Likewise, the French Broad and Tennessee rivers provide valuable recreational amenities for local kayakers and paddleboarders like Wesley Soward, urban wilderness coordinator for the city of Knoxville.
In winter, when the river level is lowered, ice forms around downstream bluffs that are accessible only by kayak or watercraft.
Soward has always loved how seasonal shifts in sunlight create reflections on the river.
“It’s very relaxing and enjoyable just to get on the water and observe the constant changes in and around the river,” Soward said. “Having those connections from Knoxville’s urban wilderness into downtown via the water is so unique to Knoxville – and a valuable asset for our community.”
As urban wilderness coordinator for the city of Knoxville, Wesley Soward knows how kayakers and paddleboarders depend on a well-managed river system for outdoor recreation.
As the sun’s last rays disappeared on the horizon, Rudolph cast once more into the water.
Water recreationists like Rudolph and Soward – and river-driven business operators like Hooper – are why TVA’s River Management team works carefully to safeguard waterways.
The river stands as the heartbeat of communities, welcoming seasonal visitors and uniting the region’s residents as they enjoy the outdoors amid every gentle ripple.
“You meet people here who are genuinely friendly, and everyone shares in the experience," Rudolph said. “I hope it stays like this forever.”
Douglas Rudolph fishes at Suttree Landing Park as Knoxville buildings reflect the setting sun.