Day Trip

Want to see something you hardly ever see? Well, just a short drive over to Blount County and you can see something very you may never have seen. An empty lake.

The Chilhowee Dam, owned by ALCOA and located on Hwy. 129, is undergoing repairs which required the lake to be emptied. This is the first time since the dam was completed in 1957 that the reservoir has been drained.

The lowered water level offers a unique opportunity to see what the river bottom looked like before the dam was built and also to see all the things that accumulate in the bottom of a lake. For instance, from the dam to the boat ramp, there are several old home site foundations, an old store foundation and the remains of a barn. But one of the wildest things is the old bridge over Abrams Creek that would normally be 15-20 under the lake. The bridge which is still entirely intact is dwarfed by the current bridge that was built after the dam was built. The black and white striping is still visible on the ends of the bridge. The piers of an old railroad bridge are also exposed beside the old bridge.

The area along Hwy. 129 behind the dam is a fairly secluded and has lent it's self for a somewhat sinister use. The shoreline and lake bottom are littered vehicles including an old F-150 Ford pickup truck and a full size Econoline Van. There are lots of chopped up car parts, motors, frames, etc. There is also a lot of just plain old trash everywhere.

All in all it's a lot of fun to see an empty lake. I was told after the trip that people aren't suppose to go down to the lake bottom and that if caught, would be fined. I don't know if that's true or not but even without going down in the empty lake, there's a lot to see from all the road side pull offs. The repairs are expected to be complete by the end of the year or the first of 2009. So if you get the chance, take the trip. It's worth seeing.

ALCOA to repair Chilhowee Dam; reservoir drawdown starts Sept. 2

From Staff Reports

On Sept. 2, ALCOA Inc. will begin lowering the water level of Chilhowee Lake so repairs can be made to the dam.

A depression or sinkhole-like area -- called by the company a settlement or subsidence -- was discovered in 2000 on the south embankment of the dam. It is generally in the shape of an upside down ice cream cone 5 or 6 feet in diameter at its top and extends down about 20 feet to bedrock.

Alcoa Power Generating Inc. (APGI), Tapoco Division, has been monitoring the depression and reported no "safety or integrity" issues were identified.

The reservoir will be lowered one to two feet per day until the water level reaches a maximum drawdown of about 20-25 feet in mid- to late-September. The repairs should be complete by late 2008 or early 2009, according to APGI.

Cost is estimated at $6 million to $8 million. Tapoco will be able generate electricity at the dam during the project at a reduced capacity.

The work will consist of repairing the subsidence and stabilizing the shoreline to prevent erosion. APGI will also take advantage of the drawdown to install artificial fish attractors to improve aquatic habitat.

Ray Barham, Tapoco Technical Manager for APGI, said the area to be repaired will be excavated down to the bedrock. The bedrock will be regrouted and the clay core will be built back up. As the core is rebuilt, the lake level will be gradually raised.

Barham said the condition of the dam could have resulted from construction techniques used at the time it was built in 1957.

The depression is still settling and the company has done what it can with nondestructive techniques to deal with the problem, according to Barham, so APGI has decided to fix it now rather than wait and make more expensive repairs later.

"It continues to settle. Long-term it could result in more extensive settlement that could result in a safety issue," he said.

Multi-agency involvement

APGI worked with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to develop the corrective action plan and solicited help from several agencies in an effort to lessen the impact of the planned repair and reservoir drawdown. Together, these agencies and APGI have implemented plans to avoid or minimize adverse effects to historic properties, fish and wildlife, infrastructure and the residents of neighboring communities, the company said in a statement.

"We appreciate the valuable input and collaboration received from the Tennessee Historical Commission, the U.S. Forest Service, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Tribal Historic Preservation Office and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and we look forward to continuing to work with them throughout the duration of this project," Barham said.

Some access to close

During the drawdown and construction period, some public access areas boat ramps and roads will be closed. These closures include:

The Chilhowee Reservoir public access area;

Boat ramps at Pear Tree, Calderwood Village, Tabcat Creek, Gravel Pile and Happy Valley;

Mt. Pleasant Road at Chilhowee Dam (closed starting Aug. 29).

Other recreational facilities will remain open, including Highway 129 day use areas, Chigger Beach and Pear Tree facilities for camping or picnicking.

Recreational areas at Tapoco's other reservoirs -- Calderwood, Cheoah and Santeetlah -- will remain open.

"We apologize, in advance, for any inconvenience this may cause residents or recreationalists," said Barham. "Our goal is to safely repair the embankment and then bring reservoir back to normal water level as quickly as possible."

In the interest of safety and resource protection, officers with APGI, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, the National Park Service and the Blount County and Monroe County Sheriff's offices will be patrolling and monitoring Chilhowee Reservoir frequently during the drawdown.

The main section of Chilhowee Dam is concrete. It stands 65 feet high and forms the 1,734-acre reservoir.

On each side of the concrete dam are embankment dams made of clay, sand, dirt and rock. The embankment dams connect the concrete structure to the shoreline and hold back water on both sides of the dam.

Chilhowee Lake is located within Blount and Monroe counties along Calderwood Highway (U.S. 129). The reservoir is maintained by APGI. Tapoco is a division of APGI, a wholly owned subsidiary of ALCOA Inc. The Tapoco Division of APGI supplies electric power to the aluminum smelting and rolling mill at Alcoa's Tennessee Operations.

Throughout the repair project, updates will be provided at