The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was established by the U.S. Congress in 1933 and brought electricity, flood control, and improved agriculture to large sections of Tennessee, western Kentucky, and northern Alabama. Although often encountering environmental challenges, the TVA played, and plays, a major role in the economic and social development of the region.
By Richard P. Gildrie, Professor Emeritus, Austin Peay State University
The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), an independent public corporation established by the U.S. Congress in 1933, has had a major impact on the economic and social development of Tennessee and northern Alabama. Its purposes were to provide inexpensive electric power, control flooding, improve river navigation, assist farmers, and foster “an orderly and proper physical, economic, and social development” of the region. It was a prominent element of the New Deal’s struggle against the Great Depression and remains a vital contributor to the area’s economic health.
In 1933, the Tennessee Valley was one of the nation’s most impoverished areas. Per capita income was 44 percent of the national average. Sporadic flooding hindered river commerce and destroyed property. Soil exhaustion and erosion ruined farms, particularly in west Tennessee. Outside of the cities, indoor plumbing and electricity were rare. Outmigration had been marked for decades.
The decline was soon reversed. By 1945, seven dams had been constructed on the main channel of the Tennessee River, nine more were built on its tributaries, and five were acquired from the Army Corps of Engineers and a private utility. A naviagable channel stretched along the 650 miles from Knoxville, Tennessee to Paducah, Kentucky on the Ohio River. Seven thousand demostration farms were operating. The TVA also created parks and boating facilities while managing thousands of acres of woodland, notably in the Land Between the Lakes. The now abundant public power was instrumental to the success of the Manhattan Project during World War Two and the founding of Oak Ridge as a permanent research center. Industries such as Alcoa Aluminum were attracted. By 1951, per capita income had risen to 61 percent of the national average.
However, stresses appeared during the postwar era. There were strong pressures toward privatization, particularly during the 1950's. Because demand threatened to exceed supply, nuclear power plants began supplementing the original coal and water facilities by 1967.
Soon a host of environmental questions arose. Air pollution and acid rain from coal-fired plants were major issues in the 1970's. Concerns about nuclear safety caused design and construction delays by 1980. Water pollution, damming, and channelization threatened fish and wildlife habitats. In addition, there were the usual cost over-runs, as well as political and bureaucratic conflicts. The TVA continues to adapt to these pressures with varying degrees of success. Nonetheless, the Tennessee Valley Authority remains a prime example of the importance of public utilities and regional planning in fostering economic development.
The TVA continues to adapt to these pressures with varying degrees of success. Nonetheless, the Tennessee Valley Authority remains a prime example of the importance of public utilities and regional planning in fostering economic development.
Erwin C. Hargrove, Prisoners of Myth: The Leadership of the Tennessee Valley Authority, 1933-1990 (1994).
Preston J. Hubbard, Origins of the TVA: The Muscle Shoals Controversy, 1917-1933 (1957).