Kyle A. Loring
On May 18, 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Tennessee Valley Authority Act (TVAA) (P.L. 73-17, 48 Stat. 58) as part of his New Deal legislation to invigorate the economy of the Tennessee Valley in particular, and the United States generally. Congress defined the act's purpose as "maintaining and operating properties now owned by the United States in the vicinity of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, in the interest of national defense and for agricultural and industrial development, and to improve navigation in the Tennessee River and to control the destructive flood waters in the Tennessee River and Mississippi River basins."
To do so, the act established the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a unique federal corporation that erected massive dams and gained world renown for its engineering achievements. The TVA has since constructed over sixty-five dams and expanded to producing other forms of electricity, providing agricultural assistance to farmers, and promoting environmental stewardship.
In 1916, the federal government purchased Alabama's Muscle Shoals region of the Tennessee River to build a dam to enable passage by ship and harness electricity from the thirty mile long, 40-foot drop in elevation. When World War I (1914919) ended, so did the need for this electricity. During the 1920s, however, Nebraska Senator George Norris continued to press for development of the Tennessee River Valley,
The TVA is a federal corporation that blends government authority with a private enterprise problem-solving approach, and it has become the largest public power system in the United States. This power system currently includes three nuclear power plants, eleven coal-fired plants, twenty-nine hydroelectric dams, five combustion-turbine plants, and about 17,000 miles of transmission lines. TVA electricity produced in these facilities now reaches over eight million residents of the Tennessee Valley.
The Tennessee Valley runs through seven Southern states: Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. At the time of the TVA's creation, electricity was available to fewer than three percent of the region's households, the average Tennessee Valley farmer earned about one-third the national average, and education expenditures reached only about one-third of the national average. During the eight years that followed passage of the act, household electricity use grew from six thousand houses to nearly five hundred thousand. The TVA also instructed local farmers on demonstration farms on the use of improved fertilizers, increasing agricultural production. In addition, the newly abundant electricity attracted industries to the Tennessee Valley, especially aluminum producers during World War II (1939945).
Early in its existence, the TVA gained fame primarily for its dambuilding expertise and its construction of some of the world's largest structures. In its first twenty years, the TVA erected twenty multipurpose dams to support flood control while generating electricity. By 1950 the TVA had attracted many international admirers and its chairman, David Lilienthal, wrote TVA: Democracy on the March, which was later translated into fourteen languages. China consulted with the TVA because of its international reputation soon after World War II, when China began to plan the Three Gorges Dam to control the flow of the Yangtze River.
Throughout its existence, the TVA has met with strong opposition from both electric companies and environmentalists. Soon after Congress created the TVA, electric companies grew wary of the business threat of inexpensive federal electricity, and they filed lawsuits claiming the federal government
The TVA met its greatest resistance in 1978 in TVA v. Hill, when a law school professor filed a lawsuit on behalf of a small fish, the snail darter. In 1959, Aubrey "Red" Wagner, the TVA's general manager, had planned a new initiative that would begin with Tellico Dam, a structure that would trap the last thirty-three free-flowing miles of the Little Tennessee River. Prior to this initiative, the TVA had fallen into low morale. It had constructed more than sixty-five dams and slowed 2,500 linear miles of river, exhausting nearly all of the possible locations for dams. Although the TVA had shifted much of its energy production to coal and nuclear-powered plants, it could not easily relinquish its mission to build dams. Wagner planned a new series of developments to reinvigorate the TVA, including Tellico Dam, which would serve as the focal point of a model industrial city on the shores of the new reservoir. The high cost/benefit ratio and adverse environmental impact of the proposal led to an outcry from both local farmers and the fledgling environmental movement.
The opposition gained a legal tool to combat the construction of Tellico Dam in 1973, when Congress enacted the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The act contained stringent safeguards to ensure the continued existence of endangered or threatened species. Section 7 of the ESA prohibited government action leading to the destruction of habitats critical to such species. As a result, a lawsuit was filed against the TVA alleging that the construction of the Tellico Dam would destroy the habitat critical to the snail darter's continued survival. The Supreme Court initially upheld this challenge and halted the Tellico Dam project. In 1979, however, a small rider snuck into the large Energy and Water Development bill that protected Tellico Dam from the prohibition on its completion. The TVA completed it in mid-1979.
See also: FEDERAL POWERS ACTS; RURAL ELECTRIFICATION ACT.
Tennessee Valley Authority. "A Short History of the Tennessee Valley Authority History." <http://www.tva.gov/abouttva/history.htm>.
Freeman, Marsha. "The World Needs the TVA, Not the IMF." Executive Intelligence Review, (June 12, 1998).
Lilienthal, David E. TVA: Democracy on the March. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1944.
Plater, Zygmunt J.B. "Environmental Law in the Political Ecosystemoping with theeality of Politics." Pace Environmental Law Revue 19 (2002): 4238.
"TVA: Electricity for All." <http://newdeal.feri.org/tva/index.htm#2>.