BRISTOL, Tenn. — As the Labor Day weekend beckons people to the last big weekend on area lakes, Franklin “Dee Dee” Brown says low South Holston Lake levels have cut into his business at Painter Creek Marina.
Brown, 38, practically grew up on the lake and at the marina, where he has worked and hung around since he was 7. And these days he’s seeing among the lowest lake levels in his lifetime.
“It’s killed my business. The second week of July we could already tell it (the lake level) was dropped,” Brown said of his business, which has groceries, a restaurant, bait and fuel. “We lost 20 percent of our business in July. We lost 30 percent of our business in August.”
Driest season in more than a century
According to the Tennessee Valley Authority, which manages South Holston and other area lakes, this is the driest summer in 118 years, well before TVA built a series of dams for flood control and hydroelectric power generation in the mid 20th century.
“It’s the driest period in 118 years,” said TVA spokesman Gil Francis. “Today, it’s about 20 feet below the normal operating range.”
That puts the water levels on affected lakes at the normal late December level now.
“We’re going to continue to do minimum flows,” Francis said.
TVA, in figuring those minimum flows, also works for water quality, for water source use, fishing and natural habitat, as well as navigable waterways.
South Holston, Watauga, Cherokee and Douglas lakes in Northeast Tennessee are among the hardest hit by the lack of rain, according to TVA, while Boone and Fort Patrick Henry lakes have not been affected as much.
Francis said that’s because Boone and Patrick Henry are more shallow and they are managed mostly by taking out and putting in the same amount of water, a net wash when it comes to lake levels.
However, the draw down will start soon after this Labor Day weekend.
The South Holston Lake level this weekend is roughly the same as would be normal for late December, Brown said. He said he met with TVA officials this week at his business to show them the effects of the low water levels firsthand.
With 320 customers who have boats, houseboats and boathouses at Painter Creek, Brown said Tennessee Valley Authority officials tell him the water level could go down another 17 to 35 feet by Nov. 1.
“I only have 38 feet of water underneath my store,” Brown said.
Asked about those numbers, Francis said that if no rain falls between now and Nov. 1 and water demand increases, lake levels could fall another 16 feet.
“That’s really speculation,” Francis said. “Mother nature doesn’t follow a computer model.”
Nonetheless, Brown said 40 customers with houseboats or boathouses are worried about their boats being damaged in dry docking, which can damage wood if the boat ends up on large rocks.
“If we just have a normal winter, then I don’t see our lakes coming up to full pool again next year,” Brown said.
Bill Faber, owner of Sportsman Marina on South Holston in Abingdon, said Wednesday business was down somewhat on his part of the lake, but he attributed it to a combination of low lake levels, humid days in the 90s and the psychological effect of seeing shoreline.
“Once they see the shorelines, they think the season’s over,” Faber said. “I don’t know whether it’s been the lake level or the heat.”
He said the biggest help for next year would be a wet fall and lots of small snows in the winter, or a week or two of steady rain from the remnants of a hurricane system that went aground.
“They (boaters) are afraid of running aground or hitting something off the points, even though I emphasize most of the hazards are uncovered now,” Faber said. “It (low lake levels) has impact, but it won’t stop until it rains.”
Dale Thomas, owner and general manager of Laurel Marina and Yacht Club on South Holston, said his business was unscathed by the low lake levels. He’s on a different part of the lake that while lower than normal is not as affected as other sections.
“I think the worst is ahead of us, not behind us, if we don’t get some rain,” Thomas said.
“Our water level this past weekend, race weekend, was virtually the same level as December 28 of last year,” said Thomas, whose business sells food, groceries, bait, fuel and boats.
“It really hasn’t had that much of a negative impact on our business at this point in time,” Thomas said.
“We’ve been more blessed by the hot weather than we’ve been hurt by the low water.”
In 1998, Thomas said South Holston reached a level of 1,690 feet above sea level and this week was about 1,708 feet above sea level.
He said the lake level fell to 1,670 or 1,680 in the 1970s.
So far, he said most boathouses, “homemade” structures, and houseboats in his area are OK.
Friendship business up
Friendship Marina and Resort owner Peter Koserski said his operation on South Holston has filled its boat slips, although he said the traffic on the lake is down.
He said even if the lake falls to 1,696 feet above sea level, another 10 feet, his operation will still be in good shape, although it takes work to adjust to varying lake levels.
“Since we are in the boat slip business, boat mooring, I am filled up. I had 20 boat slips added and all filled up,” said Koserski, who has used the marina since 1976 and owned it for 21 years.
Koserski said some boaters stay away because of reports of the lake being dangerous during lower levels, which he said is erroneous since most accidents occur during high levels.
“The lake is dangerous anytime if you’re careless,” said Koserski, whose business has a restaurant and sells fuel and groceries. He said the lakes are usable even in the winter and pointed out that the Sept. 1, 1997, level was 1,703, about what it is now.
“The lake is nice even at Christmas,” Koserski said.
John Slagle, owner of Lake View Dock on South Holston, said the lake is deeper with steeper banks in his area.
“We’ve got better water than you would in the other end of the lake,” Slagle said. “It really hasn’t affected my business at all.”
He said after the Fourth of July, business normally goes on a slow decline as people get in vacations and prepare for back-to-school time. With schools starting in early August, lake usage decreases even more except on selected weekends, he said.
He said the drop will appear to be more drastic on Boone Lake because it is a shallow, wide lake compared to the deep channels in South Holston.
So a five-foot drop in water levels will show 10 to 15 feet of banks on South Holston compared to maybe 100 feet on Boone, Slagle said.
Slagle said he believes TVA does a good job of maintaining a delicate balance of various interests in managing the lakes. Those include flood control, keeping water west of Knoxville navigable, power generation and recreational use.
Faber said that water quality issues are important on both sides of the dams, meaning that minimum flows out of South Holston help its water quality as well as that downstream.
Krisna Goodwin, executive director of tourism for Sullivan County, said the Sullivan County-operated Observation Knob Park on South Holston had to close its boat slip this week because of the low water, although the public slip at the 421 Bridge remains open. She said the park’s fishing peer isn’t usable either, because of the low water.
“We’ve got about 75 reservations for Labor Day weekend,” Goodwin said of a facility that also includes a campground, picnic area and sells ice to campers. “This year is the first year we’ve had a standard campground.”
The county started a 14-day limit on occupying camping sites after years of permanent or semi-permanent camping trailers remained at the park year round. Goodwin said she has nothing to compare this year’s business against because of the rule change.
“I don’t think that we’re not going to get campers because we don’t have water,” Goodwin said, although she said it has some effect on business since many campers also bring boats.
Lake woes on Cherokee
Southwest of the Tri-Cities, Card’nal Cove in Rutledge, which has a marina, campground, cabins, fuel sales, picnic area and restaurant on Cherokee Lake, has seen a downturn in business, according to employee Rick Davis.
“There ain’t no boats out there. Everybody’s scared of the hazards,” Davis said of rocks, sand bars and other things that can damage boats and present problems with power skis. “I’ve had people who were going to be here Labor Day cancel.”
Davis said the Cherokee Lake level is near winter pool.
“If it drops three more inches, we’ll be at winter pool,” Davis said of the about 1,035 feet above sea level.
On the other hand, Eddie Holbrook, owner of Greenlee Marina in Rutledge on Cherokee, said the low water hasn’t presented much of a problem so far for his business..
“Our business has grown this year,” Holbrook said of boat sales, marina, camping cabins and a snack bar.
Back east on Watauga Lake, Cove Ridge Marina in Butler reported no downturn in business from the lower water levels.
“It’s not really affected business any. There’s still plenty of water,” employee Dustin Burchfield said.
No one at Douglas Lake Marina in Sevierville could be reached for comment, nor could anyone at German Creek Marina in Bean Station on Cherokee, Cedar Hill Boat Dock in Talbot or Fish Springs Marina in Hampton on Watauga.
Fort Patrick Henry Lake near Kingsport has no marina or public docks, and businesses on Boone Lake haven’t had to deal with low lakes levels — yet.
Boone Lake marinas are Davis Marina in Blountville, Cancun on Boone in Piney Flats and Jay’s Boat Dock in Gray.
“Boone hasn’t fluctuated the same,” said Don McCracken, owner of Jay’s Boat Dock. “This hot weather is good for the lake business.”
However, McCracken said TVA officials have told Boone Lake marinas that the lake levels will go down much quicker than normal after the post-Labor Day draw-down and that all area lake businesses and users will be affected if the drought continues.