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Navigation on the Tennessee River

Putting the waterway to work for the people of the TVA region

photo of barges on riverNavigation on the Tennessee River — made possible by TVA’s system of dams and locks — has a significant impact on the economy of the TVA region. Actual savings vary from year to year depending on the volume and type of products shipped on the river. However, shipping goods by barge rather than by truck or rail reduces transportation costs by about $550 million each year. In addition, to compete with water transportation, railroads need to keep rates low, creating roughly another $500 million in savings for those who ship by rail or other alternatives to the river. This reduced cost means lower prices for consumers.

Because one barge can transport as much tonnage as 60 semi-trucks or 15 rail cars, water transportation also reduces highway traffic, fuel consumption, air pollution, wear and tear on highways, and the number of tires sent to landfills.

The route of the river

map of TVA watershed

The Tennessee River’s main navigable channel is 652 miles long. It begins a mile above Knoxville, Tennessee, and eventually joins the Ohio River at Paducah, Kentucky. Commercial navigation also extends into three major tributaries: 61 miles up the Clinch River, 29 miles up the Little Tennessee River and 22 miles up the Hiwassee River. Another 374 miles of channel that is too shallow for commercial traffic is marked by TVA for recreational boaters.

 

Click on the links below to find out more about this essential element of the region’s transportation system, and how it affects the lives of people in the TVA region and across the nation.

History

Until TVA went to work in 1933, navigation on the Tennessee River was severely hampered by shoals, rapids and the effects of droughts and flooding. TVA created an open river road from Knoxville, Tenn., to Paducah, Ky., and the region’s economy continues to benefit today.

How the system works

From its beginning just above Knoxville, the Tennessee River drops a total of 513 feet in elevation before it joins the Ohio River. The TVA system of nine main-river dams allows boats to ascend or descend a “staircase” of quiet, pooled water and controlled current — a continuous series of reservoirs that stretches the entire length of the Tennessee River.

Commodities shipped on the river

Many industries in the TVA region owe their existence in large part to the availability of the waterway to move raw materials affordably, which means regular paychecks for thousands of the region's residents.

Ports and terminals

A chain of river ports links centers of industrial activity along the Tennessee River. In many cases, the river was the catalyst for industrial growth at these points.

Economic significance

The end result is a reliable transportation complex that is inexpensive and efficient to use. Efficient river transportation of food products for processing in the TVA region lowers the price of groceries for consumers nationwide, not just in the Southeast. The effects of money saved transporting goods here ripples across the entire economy. That’s why the TVA river system is a national as well as regional asset.

Recreational boating

Locks along the Tennessee River waterway provide passage between reservoirs of more than 13,000 recreational craft each year.

Online resources

Contact information

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