High and Dry: Homeowners learning to live with exposed lakebed

Homeowners along Boone Lake are concluding their third summer with low water levels. Photo by Dave Ongie

Homeowners along Boone Lake are concluding their third summer with low water levels. Photo by Dave Ongie

By Dave Ongie

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of stories on Boone Lake.

The Boone Dam Project is projected to be completed  in 2022. Photo by Dave Ongie

The Boone Dam Project is projected to be completed
in 2022. Photo by Dave Ongie

For the past two summers, Julie Newman and her husband Geoffrey ventured into their backyard with hedge clippers in hand.

After hours of tedious labor that stretched over several days, the Newmans were finally able to beat back the lush growth that had sprouted up on what used to be a lakebed. This year, they finally made the decision to bring in the heavy machinery.

“This is the first time we did it the smart way,” Julie Newman said. “This season, we had some trees. I’m not going to call them brush. These things, they have stumps, some of them, with maybe a five-inch diameter.”

So the Newmans called in an expert armed with a bush hog. Two hours and $300 later, the problem was solved – at least for another year.

Welcome to the new normal for residents who live on Boone Lake, which has now been well below its usual water level for three summers as the Tennessee Valley Authority continues work on a project aimed at repairing leaks in the earthen embankment underneath Boone Dam. The extended nature of the project has transformed lakebed into dry land, which has created a scenario the TVA and homeowners never envisioned when the land was first flooded back in 1952.

Growth on the lakebed is becoming a concern for many landowners.  Photo by BIll Derby

Growth on the lakebed is becoming a concern for many landowners. Photo by BIll Derby

Technically, homeowners on Boone Lake own the land that has traditionally sat underwater during the summer months when the lake has been at its ordinary high water mark. The TVA has an easement that allows them to flood this land up to an elevation of 1,382 feet, but with repairs to the dam ongoing, the lakebed that now remains exposed year-round has created its fair share of unforeseen circumstances.

“I don’t think they ever intended anyone to have to do anything with the land,” Newman said. “Because even in the wintertime when they lowered the lake levels, it’s not enough time for any brush to grow, and anything that grows is so insignificant that once the water comes back, it just washes out.”

Now homeowners are dealing with the responsibility of maintaining the lakebed, which is not as simple as it may seem. While the lakebed may look like part of the backyard, everything below the ordinary high water mark is under the jurisdiction of five government agencies. The TVA, Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Tennessee Department of Agriculture (TDA) and Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency (TWRA) all have a vested interest in activities that take place on the lakebed.

While all of these organizations are committed to the environmental well-being of the lake, there are occasionally situations where the priorities of the respective agencies can create confusion for landowners. For example, the TWRA is encouraging the TVA and landowners around the lake to allow the vegetation sprouting up on the lakebed to grow in order to create a more hospitable habitat for fish once the water returns to its normal level.

“We do recommend that they allow the exposed lakebed to re-vegitate in general,” said John Hammonds, a Reservoirs Fisheries Biologist with TWRA. “From a wildlife standpoint, early successional vegetation provides a unique habitat for many species of animals.

“If folks are worried about trees getting too tall and affecting navigation to and from their property, docks, etc., then they can cut them down. But, if they can leave them and feel like they will not be a hindrance, then we would like for them to stay.”

The TVA has made it clear to landowners that they are responsible for maintaining the exposed lakebed within their property lines. With trees already rising well above the ordinary high water mark, there is no doubt homeowners who choose to allow trees to grow unabated will eventually be compelled to cut down growth deemed as a hindrance to navigation when the water comes back up.

“The TWRA will not be making the call whether or not the vegetation that has naturally succeeded in the exposed lakebed will cause problems with navigation,” Hammonds said. “It is my understanding that the TVA will assess this issue soon before the reservoir returns to full pool.”

Mary Ellen Miller, a spokesperson for the TVA, said the organization will be addressing any navigation concerns when repairs are closer to completion, but added that a full plan has not yet been devised.

“The TVA plans to look at potential navigational hazards when the time comes to bring the lake back up and evaluate those hazards at that time,” Miller said.

As Newman looks around at the trees towering above the waterline at properties around her home, she can’t help but wonder how costly it will be for those landowners to clear those impromptu forests to facilitate navigation if they wait until the repairs to the dam are complete.

“My best advice to my neighbors is to please take care of it now while it’s a manageable situation rather than continue letting it grow over the next several years and then having a problem that is going to be out of control,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a problem now – I think it’s a problem when the water comes back.”

There are many other issues property owners and others who use the lake for recreation need to be aware of in the years ahead. While racing ATVs across the exposed lakebed has become a popular pastime at Boone Lake, people need to know it is prohibited because of the damage it does to the lakebed.

Likewise, homeowners who put down rock or soil on the lakebed in an effort to spruce up the landscape need to first seek permission from TDEC, and the same goes for anyone looking to do any grading or dredging of the lakebed. For folks looking to wipe out the growth on the lakebed with herbicides, there are strict regulations on the application of any chemical to the lakebed. The TDEC and the TDA need to be contacted in order to prevent serious damage to the water quality.

According to an online brochure the TVA produced for property owners, chemicals used on the lakebed can remain in the soil for many years, which could do serious environmental damage once repairs are completed and water levels come back up. The brochure produced by the TVA provides a thorough rundown of what can and cannot be done on the lakebed, which can be found at this link: tva.com/Newsroom/Boone-Dam-Project/Boone-Exposed-Lakebed-An-Owners-Guide.

Still, Newman expressed concern that homeowners without knowledge of the guidelines or regard for the permit process could end up using chemicals that could potentially damage the water quality.

“Honestly, what’s going to stop somebody from grabbing some Roundup and heading onto their own property and spraying weeds,” she asked. “The TVA is going to have no idea – or any of these agencies – what anybody has put into the ground or the water.”

For now, Newman and many other homeowners are making the best of the situation. Newman’s family has moved their floating dock down to the water, which has helped them enjoy another summer on the water that remains in the reservoir.

But with a few more summers of low tide looming ahead, Newman is among those yearning for her back yard to shrink back to its intended proportions.

“We just want our lake back,” Newman said.


Next week we take a closer look at the efforts to keep Boone Lake clean.


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