Tennessee Valley History

TVA: Energy, Economic Development, and Environment

It should be charged with the broadest duty of planning for the proper use, conservation and development of the natural resources of the Tennessee River drainage basin and its adjoining territory for the general social and economic welfare of the Nation. This Authority should also be clothed with the necessary power to carry these plans into effect” (Franklin D. Roosevelt: "Message to Congress Suggesting the Tennessee Valley Authority," April 10, 1933)

The Tennessee River and its tributaries have brought people to its waters for 8000 years.  The river’s course from mountainous land to wide, flat bottomlands created both beautiful navigable waterways and treacherous shoals that stymied travel. It served as a highway for the western frontier and an important strategic role in the Civil War.  At the turn of the 20th century, life along the river brought a pattern of seasonal flooding and then shallow stagnant water resulting in economic and human suffering.     

 

The adventurers among us love the idea of a wild, raging river. The image is a compelling reminder of our country’s early history when a rick of firewood and a good pair of mules were all that most families required. Even as recently as the early 1900s, many folks living in the Tennessee Valley needed little more from their rivers and streams than the energy required to turn the local gristmill. It seemed that no one was looking toward the region’s future, especially when it came to three of the area’s major concerns: energy, environmental and economic needs.

Bleak times

Many of the Valley’s oldest residents say that they were so poor when the Depression began; they felt little or no impact. Poor farming practices had left the once fertile ground producing paltry crops. Flooding during the rainy winter and early spring decimated river cities and farmland alike at an enormous cost to both the private and public sectors. Moreover, it was frequently stagnated: three out of five people in North Alabama would suffer in their lifetime from malaria. It was a hard life in the Tennessee Valley then. The wild and raging river only made it harder. Only three in 100 people had electricity to light their lives and labors; far fewer had running water. 

A new day

But as the 1930s began, it was clear that the nation’s dark, economic cloud would have a silver lining for the Tennessee Valley. A government agency was being created that would change the region forever. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Senator George Norris had a vision for a better life for the people of the region, which they outlined in the Tennessee Valley Authority Act, passed in 1933. The act provided for flood control, electrification, navigation and the overall improvement of the quality of life.

"It is time to extend planning to a wider field, in this instance comprehending in one great project many states directly concerned with the basin of one of our greatest rivers." Franklin Delano Roosevelt April 10, 1933

"Every stream in the United States that flows from the mountains through the meadows to the sea has the possibility of producing electricity for cheap power and cheap lighting. This natural resource was given by an all-wise Creator to His people and not to organizations of greed." Senator George Norris.

In 1936, the Unified Development of the Tennessee River System plan laid out the tactics by which TVA would build dams to transform the poverty-stricken, often-flooded Valley into a modern, electrified and developed slice of America. It also provided TVA with an identity and a vision that drives the company today.

The plan also guided the building of hydroelectric dams that would allow TVA to:

•Control flooding

•Allow for navigation throughout the Tennessee Valley watershed, including tributary rivers, such as the Clinch, Hiwassee and Little Tennessee

•Provide electricity

•Control insect populations

•Create reservoirs for recreation

•Help with soil conservation and resource management

More than Electricity-Environment and Economy

TVA employs a balanced management approach, which ensures that electricity, the environment and economy are always on equal footing. Before a new initiative is launched or a current one is altered, its impact on everything from wildlife to water quality and industry to tourism is weighed using environmental and economic impact studies.

TVA has partnered with the states and local governments and, in the process, helped to transform a region.  For example, an entire river system has been controlled and put to work.  A stairway of nine dams and reservoirs provide a continuous nine-foot navigation channel permitting the movement of millions of tons of commercial freight traffic annually.  TVA’s multiple-use reservoir system has also provided 11 million acre-feet of water storage, making serious floods a thing of the past.  Vast amounts of power have been developed and channeled into homes, farms, business, industry, and national defense.  In effect, TVA was an agent of modernization, opening unrealized opportunities for mobility and economic growth.

As part of its core mission, TVA continues its role in developing recreation areas and programs to support economic and community development.  This dedication to detail utilizes the expertise of biologists, statisticians, community relations experts, archeologists, economists, recreationalists, engineers and a host of other professionals to help manage 11,000 miles of public shoreline, 293,000 of surrounding acreage, the wildlife that lives there, the people who play there and the commercial and recreational vessels that navigate the river 365 days a year.

Revisiting the directive

In a 1940 message to Congress, President Roosevelt wrote that “people should understand that power development was only a part” of TVA. More than 70 years later, some residents of the Valley are unaware that much of the original objective of the 1933 Act included, in the president’s words, initiatives such as “the planting of water-retaining forests near the headwaters of the many rivers and streams, the terracing of farm hillsides, the building of small check-dams, the development of fertilizer, the diversification of crops and other soil building methods… and many other similar activities.” It also noted that, “recreation in its broad sense is a definite factor in the improvement of the bodies and minds of our future citizens.”  Conservation and improved water quality efforts are in effect within TVA and with its local distributors because water must continue to be safe for people and wildlife today and a century from now.  The Tennessee River and its communities share in the benefits that the TVA brought to the Valley. 

"Men and nature must work hand in hand. The throwing out of balance of the resources of nature throws out of balance also the lives of men."
January 24, 1935  Franklin Delano Roosevelt.