We live in a time when there is a lot of debate on how the government might take measures to assure reliable and affordable resources of power, particularly in light of our ongoing gas crisis. We also live in a time when we are trying to find our way as to our role in conservation and the proper way to handle the natural world so we can live ìgreenî and not damage the environment. Thirdly, we live in a time of remarkable natural disasters such as devastating hurricanes, fires and floods.
All of these symptoms remind us of another time in our history when a certain area of the country was clearly a candidate for some form of government program to address all of these problems. This area is called the Tennessee Valley in northern Alabama. The area that was under particular study was known as Muscle Shoals because of a dramatic drop in elevation of the Tennessee river drops 140 feet in just under 30 miles which creates a series of dramatic and violent rapids and waterfalls that locals came to refer to as the ìMuscle Shoalsî. It is an area so well known that it was celebrated in the well known song Sweet Home Alabama with the verseÖ
ìNow Muscle Shoals has got the swampers. And theyíve been known to pick a song or two. Lord they get me off so much. They pick me up when Iím feeling blue. Now how about you?î
As beautiful and exciting as the shoals were, they did create a number of problems that was causing disruption to the local population and holding back progress. This was an area that was highly susceptible to flooding due to the shoals. Moreover, the uncontrolled water flow made navigation of this segment of the Tennessee River virtually impossible which hindered commerce.
So the federal government organized a project to place strategic dams along the Tennessee River and implement other improvements to tame the shoals and create economic opportunity. The project that was named the Tennessee Valley Authority. The TVA was highly controversial because then, as now, people were highly resistant to government interference and big government projects, particularly those that altered the lifestyle of an entire region of the country.
The project was launched with the purchase of the land in 1913. However, because of the opposition to allowing the federal government in to deal with local issues, the project floundered for decades. Finally President Roosevelt got the program moving with the Tennessee Valley Authority Act in 1933. This was a remarkably well rounded piece of legislation that addressed environmental, economic, conservation and even defense concerns, all of which would be incorporated into the TVA plan.
What was unique in the Tennessee Valley Act that was uncommon in most government legislation was the directive that the TVA would set a high priority on improving both the economic life and the quality of life of residents of all areas affected by the project. But the transition that was necessary to achieve the goals of the TVA program was traumatic to the area. In some areas residents had to be relocated as lands were flooded during dam construction. The image of big brother coming in and destroying the lifestyle of regular Americans was a haunting concept that brought tremendous backlash against the project.
But in an unusual demonstration of determination and courage, program administrators persevered. The result is that today the Tennessee Valley is prosperous and vibrant. The TVA program of reforestation and conservation has resulted in the integration of hydroelectric and nuclear power plants with the local environment. The floods have stopped and the area economy has gone through a boom because the TVA program has become one of the largest electricity generation projects in history.
The story of the TVA is a success story for a government program that was unusual because its whole purpose was to improve the lives of Americans and to put an end to devastating natural disasters before they occurred. It showed foresight, planning, concern for citizenry, an awareness of conservation issues and the courage of conviction that is absent in government in modern times. As such the TVA stands as an example we should look back on as a time when government stood for something and followed through when the going got tough. It is a lesson to us all on how things should work when our political system works correctly.