TVA answers: Could what happened at Boone Dam happen again at other aging dams in Northeast TN?

Restoring Boone Lake

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — After years of work to repair Boone Dam, the Boone Lake reservoir will be back to “full pool” by mid-July.

It will be the first time that’s happened since 2014.

In the fall of that year, TVA dropped the lake dramatically when engineers found potentially catastrophic erosion near the dam. As of this spring, repair work on the dam essentially is complete, and all repairs appear to be working, according to two top TVA employees in charge of the project.

Now, final testing is underway ahead of the project completion which is set for Memorial Day next year.

As the Boone project wraps up, TVA says its dam safety team is keeping a close watch on surrounding dams, most of which are older than the members of the dam safety team and all of which are critical infrastructure preventing flooding while generating power and creating beloved recreation areas.

“The infrastructure is aging,” said Chris Saucier, TVA’s Boone Dam technical director.

A quick check of the historic record shows he’s right. Fort Patrick Henry Dam in Kingsport was built in 1953. South Holston Dam in Sullivan County has been around since 1950. Watauga Dam in Carter County was completed in 1948. Nearby Wilbur Dam was built in 1912 before the TVA even existed.

Rafters float downstream of Wilbur Dam in Carter County, a 109 year-old structure that TVA says is in excellent working order and the focus of constant inspections. (Source: TVA)

And then there’s Boone Dam. Construction there was finished in 1952. Sixty-two years later in 2014, Boone Dam was due for an urgent and expensive repair.

When asked about the chances for another Boone-like scenario in TVA’s dam system, Saucier and TVA Project Manager Sam Vinson said the specific problems at Boone seem connected to Boone’s specific geology. They believe the Karst topography, made up of underground caves tilted at an angle by the prehistoric shifting of the Earth, created the perfect setup for the underground movement of water and the subsequent potential for internal erosion.

“Anything is possible but we don’t see anything in our inventory that causes us any concern,” Vinson said.

“What we see here at Boone is a pretty unique problem influenced by its geology,” Saucier said. “The specific combination we saw here at Boone, we don’t see at the other sites.”

But Saucier says that confidence doesn’t bring complacency. He said non-stop inspections continue both above the water level and below as part of TVA’s Dam Safety program. The agency said it conducts regular checks on all its dams.

“We’re doing the right things, and I sleep well at night,” said Saucier.

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