TVA Turns 88

In our 88th year of service, TVA continues to make life better for the people of the Tennessee Valley in new and important ways.

MAY 18, 2021 — Today is TVA’s 88th anniversary, and a day to reflect on how much our work still matters. Without the Tennessee Valley Authority Act, signed on this day in 1933 by President Franklin Roosevelt, it is unlikely this region would enjoy the same quality of life we do today.  

Many may have forgotten, or never realized, the desperate state of the Tennessee Valley in 1933. As bad as conditions were elsewhere in the nation, in most cases they were worse in the Tennessee Valley. There were devastating flooding issues, especially at Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Decatur, Alabama. The Tennessee was a non-navigable river — there many were river hazards, including the famous Muscle Shoals in Alabama, and the Suck and the Boiling Pot down below Chattanooga. You simply could not travel the river’s entire length, whether for transportation or commerce.

Chattanooga flood

The Tennessee Valley lagged behind the rest of the nation in almost every indicator, including employment, educational attainment and public health. In 1933 the annual per capita income in the Valley region was $168 — equivalent to about $3,300 today and only 45 percent of the national average at the time. The birthrate was one-third above the national average. Levels of literacy were low, and the labor force largely unskilled. Valley residents suffered from malnutrition; malaria affected up to 30 percent of the population in some areas. More than half the region’s three million people lived on farms, and of these, half lived on farms they did not own. Soil-depleting row crops such as corn, cotton and tobacco provided most of the farm income. Because these crops left the topsoil exposed to winter rains, about half the Valley’s open land was severely eroded or abandoned. 

The Original Mission

Most rural homes were not electrified — only three farms in 100 had electricity. Unchecked fires burned 10 percent of the region’s woodlands every year, and poor logging practices had nearly ruined forests that once offered endless miles of timber.

The preamble to the TVA Act of 1933 laid out succinctly that TVA’s role was “to improve the navigability and to provide for the flood control of the Tennessee River; to provide for reforestation and the proper use of marginal lands in the Tennessee Valley; to provide for the agricultural and industrial development of said Valley; to provide for the national defense . . . and for other purposes.”

The first generation of TVA employees went to work building our system of dams and locks to control floods and improve navigation of the Tennessee River. They created and distributed powerful fertilizers to help improve farming practices and crop yields. They grew and planted seedlings to stop soil erosion and reforest denuded areas. TVA workers also provided electricity to rural areas and recruited industries to the region to provide jobs. They completed these tasks, and many more, to improve the quality of life of the people in the region. 

The Urgent Work of Today

While these initial problems were solved, we — TVA’s current employees — are still tasked with improving the quality of life for the people of our region in our time. That is what makes our anniversary matter. Just as earlier generations of workers met their own challenges, we are meeting ours: battling climate change, building the energy system of the future.

We are working to meet our generation needs while reducing carbon levels and aspiring to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. We want to ensure this region has some of the best jobs in the nation, so over the past five years our economic development work has generated approximately 341,000 jobs and over $45.4 billion in capital investment in the Tennessee Valley. We balance competing demands on our water system to provide flood control, navigation, power production and recreation, as well as water supply and water quality.

As long as our mission remains–serving the people of the Tennessee Valley to make life better — the work TVA does will always matter and our anniversaries will be days worth noting.