By Michael Butler, CEO of Tennessee Wildlife Federation
The Tennessee Valley has a problem. In their effort to address this problem, and protect our citizens from health and safety concerns, the Tennessee Valley Authority hit a roadblock: Congress.
The problem? Private, unregulated floating houses placed upon the public reservoirs managed by TVA. Floating houses are exactly what they sound like—homes built on flotation and permanently moored on public waters. Of the approximately 1,800 in place today, half of them were placed on our reservoirs illegally. The problem dates back to the 1950s.
In 1971, TVA placed its first prohibition on the construction of new floating houses, followed in 1978 and 2003 by new policies that reaffirmed these prohibitions. This didn’t stop unscrupulous builders, as 930 new floating houses were placed on public reservoirs from 1978 to 2010. Of those, TVA knows essentially nothing about the quality of construction or adherence to building codes, their sewage management status, or the safety of electrical systems – water and electricity do not mix well. From time to time, these floating houses do break free of their moorings and present a direct safety threat to navigation. If they sink, the environmental challenges are many.
The health, safety and recreational needs of the public users of our reservoirs must be taken more seriously.
TVA recently passed a new board policy that once again calls for no new floating houses, but also gives existing floating house owners 30 years until they have to leave our public reservoirs. Now, the U.S. Congress has decided to override that policy. Last week, the House of Representatives passed an amendment devised by Congressman Meadows (R-NC), and carried by Congressman Schuster (R-PA), which will overturn portions of the recently updated TVA policy pertaining to floating houses, and arguably make a solution much more difficult.
Despite members of our Tennessee delegation saying TVA’s decision was made too hastily, this floating house policy took nearly two years to complete, received hundreds of public comments and produced several alternatives that were considered. Dealing with 930 unregulated floating structures is no small matter.
Yet TVA is not without fault in this scenario—their failure to enforce their own rules for decades on these types of structures is notable. Owners who did go through TVA to obtain a permit and have made an effort to follow the rules deserve to be made whole in 30 years when the structures are removed.
But let’s not allow the few voices representing these floating house owners, some of which own illegal and unpermitted floating houses, to set policy for all 49 TVA reservoirs of the Tennessee Valley; especially in the eleventh hour. Let’s not abandon the public process and input that TVA used over the past two years to guide the development of the new board policy.
Our federal government used eminent domain to force the sale of private lands to allow the creation of reservoirs for a greater public good. The new TVA policy works to protect that public good.
Tennessee’s public reservoirs are a huge asset that should not be allowed to become de facto private lots for floating houses. Now is the time for us and the public users of our TVA managed reservoirs to let our voices be heard. Please call your congressman and ask them to protect our public reservoirs and support TVA’s board policy that does so.