By Dave Ongie
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of stories on Boone Lake.
For five days a week, 50 weeks a year, a three-man crew labors in an effort to keep Boone Lake clean.
The three men take to the water in boats and rid the lake of everything from old tires and logs to the occasional cattle carcass. After heavy rains this past spring washed an extraordinary amount of debris into the lake, the crew cleared up a debris slick near Sonny’s Marina that was estimated to be the size of two football fields.
It may come as a surprise that these men tasked with keeping Boone Lake free of environmental and safety hazards are not employed by any governmental agency. Instead, their compensation comes solely from a group of private citizens known as the Boone Lake Association.
The Boone Lake Association has been in existence since 1983. According to the group’s website, the BLA “is the only organization with a comprehensive year-round program to collect and dispose of trash and debris from Boone Lake.” To that end, the BLA owns and maintains three boats that aid in those efforts, and the three full-time employees who spearhead the operation are paid from the dues collected by the organization.
Even without the extenuating circumstances that have arisen since the lake level was lowered to facilitate the Boone Dam Project, keeping the water in Boone Lake clean has always been a challenge. According to the BLA, the reservoir’s watershed covers over 600 square miles and includes 600 streams and tributaries that feed the lake. Also, the association states that three of the five municipalities that surround Boone Lake discharge wastewater either directly into the reservoir or one of its tributaries.
Through the years, the BLA has been able to shoulder the responsibility of keeping the lake clean thanks to dues paid by its members. According to an article penned by BLA president Zenda Nichols in a Feb. 2017 edition of The Shoreliner – a quarterly magazine produced by BLA and distributed to landowners around Boone Lake — the association enjoyed a record-high membership of over 600 in 2013 before the seepage was announced. By the end of 2016, Nichols said membership was down to 321.
Nichols went on to sound the alarm for past and present members of the association.
“Over 90 percent of your BLA dues go to pay the three full-time employees who navigate the Boone Lake waters collecting debris and burning it when allowed. There are three boats and motors which require maintenance,” Nichols wrote, adding “without our members, Boone Lake Association would cease to exist.”
A graphic below her story illustrated the severity of the situation. In 2016, the BLA only brought in $52,668, which didn’t offset the $77,502 of expenditures incurred by the association.
By July, the situation became grim enough for the association to bring its plight to the attention of local governments. In a pair of letters obtained by The News & Neighbor, the BLA reached out to both Washington County and Sullivan County looking for the best way to request subsidies to keep its three-man crew employed until repairs to the dam are completed.
On Aug. 3, a letter from the BLA was distributed to the Washington County Health, Education & Welfare Committee prior to the first of two meetings between BLA board members and members of the committee. In that letter, the BLA stated that its membership has fallen below 200, and without an influx of $60,000 from Washington County and Sullivan County to make up for a shortfall in the dues, the cleanup program would be in jeopardy.
“Our board recognizes that without such financial assistance, our lake operations will end at the end of this year,” the letter stated.
As for where that money might come from, the letter alluded to annual payments of $863,000 that the TVA has been making to both counties since the project started. The TVA has pledged to continue making these annual payments to both counties until the Boone Dam Project is complete. The impact payments are granted to areas that have major TVA projects that place unique demands on the area’s infrastructure beyond normal operations.
Washington County shared $281,297.44 of its 2017 payment with Johnson City. The city commission put its share of this money into an economic development reserve. While the payments are not earmarked exclusively for use in and around the lake, the BLA argued that some of that money should go toward ensuring the cleanup efforts the association has provided for over 30 years continue uninterrupted.
“Quite obviously, our Board feels that our operation and the consequences that we have suffered indirectly as a result of lake drawdown should qualify for consideration for funding from this particular resource as long as the counties continue to receive these payments,” the letter said.
Back in July, Washington County mayor Dan Eldridge told The News & Neighbor he was hoping to use Washington County’s portion of these impact payments – $581,702.56 after Johnson City received its cut – to fund a proposed Aerospace Park Project adjacent to Tri-Cities Airport. As it turned out, complications in how the deal was structured prevented the use of the TVA funds from being a viable option.
“It is one-time money,” Eldridge said at the time. “If we were going to pay all of this up front, we could have used the TVA money and just made lump sum payments for four years. However, with the agreement being structured essentially as a guarantee, it just really complicated it, because there is the potential you get 10 years out and there is revenue coming into Aerospace Park to pay the debt service.”
After the BLA made its second appearance before the Washington County Heath, Education and Welfare Committee earlier this month, members of that committee voted in favor of allowing the BLA to make a presentation in front of the full county commission on Sept. 25. While the BLA will have a chance to plead its case next week, county commission chairman Greg Matherly said there is really no action the full commission can make next Monday without suspending its own rules since the BLA has not yet appeared in front of the county’s budget committee.
“It’s just an informational-type thing. That’s the way I see it,” Matherly said. “Our normal process would be to go to the Health, Education and Welfare Committee, and they’d make a recommendation. And since there is a funding part of this thing, it would have went on to the budget committee and then on to the full commission.”
With the clock ticking toward December, next Monday night will be another chance for the BLA to sound the alarm. But unless the county commission takes extraordinary measures, the funding to keep the cleanup crew on the water will not yet be in sight.
Next week we take a closer look at the state of recreation on and around Boone Lake.