Colton Young of Colonial Heights fishes near Fort Henry Patrick Dam. Photo by Erica Yoon.
How low can you go?
Users of South Houston, Cherokee, Watauga and Douglas lakes be forewarned: Water levels are low and liable to get lower, which means tree stumps, sandbars and shorelines usually not visible this time of year are above the water line.
Tennessee Valley Authority officials Tuesday said they are receiving more and more calls about low lake levels caused by the driest season so far in 118 years - well before the TVA dams were put in place in the mid-20th century.
"We're starting to get calls from people in the tributary areas concerned about the water levels," said David Bowling, Knoxville-based manager of TVA's River Forecast Center.
However, users of Fort Patrick Henry and Boone lakes will notice little if any difference.
The reason, Bowling and Knoxville-based TVA spokesman Gil Francis said during a Tuesday visit to the Tri-Cities, is that those lakes are not as deep as the others, and what water comes in flows out.
"What comes in goes out is essentially the way you run a Boone and East Pat," Bowling said.
Douglas, Cherokee, Watauga and South Holston, on the other hand, are much deeper with steeper shorelines.
South Holston is down 12 feet below normal, compared to Watauga at 7 feet down, Cherokee 13 feet down and Douglas 17 feet down. Fontana Lake, near Asheville, N.C., is down 26 feet. However, Bowling said all are down about the same amount of water, just in proportion to their shapes and depths.
Water levels are so low that some lakes may reach their normal Dec. 31 low around Oct. 1 unless substantial rains fall in the next few months, Bowling said.
As of midnight Monday, Bowling said TVA lakes in the area from Chattanooga eastward had a cumulative average of 13.8 inches of rain since Jan. 1, compared to a normal average of 25.6 inches.
"You could have showers every day from now until September. That's not enough to have an impact on lake levels," Francis said.
He said three large storm systems bringing 2 inches each to the region could help bring lake levels up near normal, although he said that could cause flooding in small creeks and other tributaries.
Forecasters are calling for a busy hurricane season, which could help, but Francis said the best solution would be slow and steady.
"Give us an inch a week," Francis said.
Since mid-February, Francis and Bowling said TVA lakes in the area have been limited to minimum flows, designed to keep water quality up.
So far, he said oxygen levels for fisheries and fish and water quality for municipalities and industries that use tributary water have not been impacted. However, Bowling said he doesn't know the impact of the low water levels on recreational fishing.
And so far, he said the dryness has not affected navigable waters from Knoxville to Paducah, Ky.
However, Francis said it has affected hydroelectric generation.
"To date, that's about half what it would be this time of the year," Francis said of hydroelectric power at 54 percent of its usual level.
Hydropower is usually 10 percent of the TVA power mix. To make up the shortfall, he said TVA is burning more coal and buying power from other utilities. He said nuclear plants generally run at a steady rate and are not affected.
As for recreational lake users, Bowling and Francis said many docks on affected lakes could become unusable unless moved farther out into the lakes, and some ramps could become unusable earlier in the season.
In some coves, they said houseboats could be left high and dry.
For more information on TVA visit www.tva.gov.