A trip to one of the Southeast's oldest hydroelectric plants brings perplexity and incurs an unexpected dryness.
It’s early fall and I’m on the banks of the Laramie River for the annual rubber duck race down a short stretch of the river through town. Hundreds of rubber ducks are set loose to float a course down the stream. Quaking yellow aspen leaves dot the slow moving, glacier-cold water. Laramie locals turn out to see which duck will bust out of the pack, avoid the eddies and snags, and be netted out by a Rotarian and declared the winner. The winning duck wasn’t mine. But watching that flotilla got me considering the Laramie River, and how little chance a rubber duck or anything else has of floating from headwaters to mouth without getting trapped by a dam.
The Laramie eventually flows into the Platte, which flows into the Missouri then in to the Mississippi, one of the most heavily controlled rivers in the country.
I wanted to understand more clearly how dams work and to gain insight on whether hydroelectric power was worth the environmental drawbacks of damage to fish and drowning of canyons. That’s why I set out for Kentucky Lake, formed by the last dam on the TVA system before the Tennessee joins the Ohio and they flow on in to the Big River. But as the travel writer Pico Iyer reminds us, we travel not to get answers, but to ask better questions.
I reached the confluence of the rivers in Paducah, Kentucky, the afternoon before my scheduled visit to Kentucky Lake Dam. I stayed at Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park that night, just outside of Paducah. Kentucky Reservoir has a surface area of 160,300 acres and about 2,000 miles of shoreline, but I picked the accommodations that seemed closest to the dam, on paper, anyway. When I arrived I was pleased to see the dam and the power lines in the distance from the balcony of my room. But I couldn’t get there from there. The road over the dam to the power plant and Visitor Center was under construction, marked with huge Road Closed signs. I got an early start in the morning to reconnoiter the spot. I spent several hours before my scheduled 1 p.m. appointment driving up and down the Land Between the Lakes, along Lake Barkley, which is the other lake that the land is between, and across a blue bridge over the Cumberland River. I stopped for directions several times and received conflicting advice. I got myself so turned around I actually thought I had succeeded in finding Kentucky Dam.
I relaxed for an hour on a bench overlooking the wrong dam, obliviously watching people fish. I only headed over early to the Visitor Center because a man on a riding mower was determined to cut the grass under my bench. Thank goodness it was groundskeeping day. It was only after checking in with a sweet young lady at the Visitor Center that I learned I was still lost. I was a few miles off course and had found Barkley Dam, a project of the Corps of Engineers. Darn.
Thanks to the nice young lady I managed to make cell phone contact with Jeff Ring. He is the head technician at Kentucky Dam, who was to be my guide. From his view through the Visitor Center’s panoramic window, Ring could see my approach through light rain that was getting heavier. He talked me down the closed road, across violent dips and loose gravel, as I picked my way through a carnival of road construction equipment. “Are you driving a little red car?” he asked “Thank God, you see me!” I’m afraid I squealed. “Just aim toward those power lines and head downhill.”
If Ring thought I was an idiot, he certainly didn’t let on. Perhaps it was his Southern manners, or maybe he understood why I took the words “road closed” at face value. At any rate, he greeted me with a smile and held the door open for me as I dashed in through the rain. I found myself in a room about the size of a bank lobby. Several kiosks allowed the unattended visitor to hit buttons and learn about the history of TVA and the operations of various hydroelectric power plants in the system.
Ring directed my attention to a diagram of how the Kentucky Lake Dam produces power. This plant uses a Kaplan blade turbine; its five generating units produce 199 megawatts. The dam is 206 feet high and 8,422 feet long. Ring was explaining how water comes in the intake and enters the penstock when there was a mighty clap of thunder and the popping sound of something electrical tripping. He left me alone momentarily while he ran off to be sure that nothing important had blown.
While I waited I noticed that one wall was actually a window on the plant’s control room. There were rows of computer monitors showing graphs of river flow and generator efficiency, the sorts of things I’d come to expect in power plants, but there were no human operators. When Ring returned he told me that no one works in the control room any more. “It is all run from Chattanooga,” he explained. Ring, who used to be a control room operator before becaming “head tech,” didn’t seem concerned that no one at the plant was really running the show. If there are problems or issues at the dam to be resolved, “We know what to do or who to call,” he said.
Ring walked me onto a balcony at the Visitor Center where we could stand out of the rain and look at the grey thunder of the Tennessee River. It was sluicing through the dam like beer froth through a harmonica. In spite of the noisy water, rainfall and construction sounds, a great blue heron stood placidly on the river bank.
While we looked at the heron and the heron looked at fish, Ring told me about the TVAs priorities for the river: “River scheduling and navigation come first. Then electricity. But above all, human life and safety. If someone’s safety was threatened, the other things wouldn’t matter.”
The area around Kentucky Dam had seen a great deal of rainfall the last few days, this day included. Ring told me he had been in conversation with the folks at Chattanooga about the amount of water flowing over the spillway instead of being diverted through the dam and past the turbine. The water in the reservoir had not quite reached its capacity, he said, yet “Chattanooga” was requiring him to let water flow free. “We’re spilling without making power. Water is free, especially when it rains. We’re losing money by doing that.”
But “Chattanooga” is the boss. And so is Knoxville, where TVA is headquartered.
Anyone can stop by a TVA Visitor Center and see displays about the history of TVA and operation of a dam. Almost no one can tour a TVA dam’s actual power plant. I tried for months to get permission and learned that “since 9/11” tours are not allowed. Officials say they do not have the financial resources to pay for the security required to let people into the power plants. That’s why my only experience of the workings at this plant was from videos created for tourists. Jeff Ring was very helpful and generous with his time when I visited. But sometimes it is nice when a local takes you under his wing.
I found such a local in John Harnon at the Kentucky Lake Bait and Tackle Store. The combination convenience store and gas station was a few miles away from my room at Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park. The night before my tour I thought it might be nice to drink a beer or two from my balcony, watching the lake soften with the colors of sunset. So I headed to the bait shop, walked expectantly to the cooler in the back of the store, and stared at a case of soda pop. I approached the man behind counter and asked where the beer was. He just shook his head with the weary and exasperated air of someone who wished he’d had a lottery ticket for every time he’d been asked that question. “Dry county,” he said with more empathy than I would have mustered in his place.
Coming from a place where alcohol is sold at liquor store drive-up windows, I wasn’t acclimated to the traditions of this part of the country. As it turns out, of the 120 counties in Kentucky, 52 are completely dry, 38 are considered partially dry or “moist,” 29 are entirely wet, and one is ambivalent. There is some wiggle room about dispensing alcohol at a golf course, it seems, but Harnon was too chagrined by the topic for me to want to put him through a fuller explanation.
While I soaked up this news and wondered about my emotional alcohol dependence, Harnon told me stories I’d best not repeat about moonshiners and marijuana growers who live hereabouts. Folks stopped in to buy cigarettes, potato chips, or gas. A few wondered if the bait shop was going to stay open beyond Thanksgiving this year. Nobody asked about beer. I sat on a plastic lawn chair at the end of the counter during all these exchanges, like I belonged there. Eventually we got around to my purpose in visiting the area. My new friend was shocked to learn that I’d been denied a tour of the dam power plant. As a long-time resident, he said he used go there all the time and see the power plant up close. He even called a friend of his who is a “TVA cop” to see if a favor could be granted for me. Naturally the TVA cop said no. He suggested I call Jeff Ring.
Hoping Ring wouldn’t get wind of what might seem an attempted end-run around TVA hierarchy, I said so long to the group at the bait store. Harnon walked me out so I could meet his beagle Lucy, who was tied up near his Honda Gold Wing motorcycle. The pair demonstrated how Lucy could jump up onto the bike’s seat by herself. After exchanging emails and promises to write, I went back to my room with its pleasant balcony. I could sit there beerless and read some TVA pamphlets on the eve of my tour. Too bad I didn’t think to ask someone the First Question of Travel: “Can I get there from here?”
Author’s note: This material is based upon work supported by the University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources through its Matching Grant Fund Program.