Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) (1933)

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The TVA was created on May 18, 1933 by the Tennessee Valley Authority Act.  It was established as an independent agency of the federal government to further the economic development of an impoverished, mountainous region covering most of Tennessee and parts of six surrounding states.

The TVA was one of several large river basin development projects launched during the 1930s, like those on the Columbia, Missouri and Colorado Rivers.  It built dams up and down the river system for flood control and power generation, including the Norris, Wheeler, Pickwick Landing, Guntersville, Hiawassee, Chickamauga, Watts Bar, Kentucky, Cherokee, Fort Loudon, Ocoee #3, Chatuge, Nottely, Appalachia, Douglas, and Fontana dams [1].  The TVA engaged in many other activities, as well, such as malaria prevention, reforestation, forest fire suppression, erosion control, fertilizer development, agricultural education, advice to farmers and wildlife habitat protection [2].  CCC workers from nearly 200 camps in the region assisted TVA on many of these projects [3].

A key purpose of TVA was to provide electricity to rural areas underserved, or even ignored, by private power companies.  It grew out of a long struggle over the hydroelectric potential at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and dovetailed with New Deal efforts to regulate private monopolies and bring electricity to the whole country [4].  It was not long before the TVA had an impact: “Across the Southeast, rates fell so sharply that residents and businesses started thinking up new ways to use electricity – a situation that had been unimaginable only a couple of years earlier, when electrical power was viewed as a luxury to be used sparingly….Ownership of electrical appliances tripled overall…By 1935 power rates were 30 percent below the national average across the region…” [5].

The TVA played a critical role during World War II, its huge electricity supply used to produce raw materials for munitions, fertilizer for food production, and aluminum for aircraft.  The TVA also provided the electricity and the secret site for the development of the atomic bomb at Oak Ridge, Tennessee [6].  Other major river basin projects gave similar boosts to the war effort and growth in the Southwest and the Pacific Northwest, but TVA was the only one with regional planning authority.  After the war, TVA and its director, David Lilienthal, were heralded around the world as a model for government-led regional development.

Today, TVA provides power to over 9 million people in 7 states from its 29 dams, 11 coal-fired power plants and 3 nuclear facilities [7].  While it has had to adapt to new economic, political and environmental conditions, it remains popular.  When President Obama suggested selling TVA, Republicans knocked the proposal down as “a very bad idea” that “could lead to higher electricity rates” [8].  It is the only public works agency entirely created by the New Deal that is still in operation, though now chartered as a public corporation.

Sources: (1) Robert D. Leighinger, Jr., Long-Range Public Investment: The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal, Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2007, p. 112.   (2) “From the New Deal to a New Century,” Tennessee Valley Authority, http://www.tva.com/abouttva/history.htm, accessed March 1, 2015.   (3) Perry H. Merrill, Roosevelt’s Forest Army: A History of the Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942, p. 41, Montpelier, VT, 1981.  (4) i.e, the Public Utility Holding Company Act and the Rural Electrification Act of 1935.  See also our summary of the Rural Electrification Administration.  (5) Michael Hiltzik, The New Deal: A Modern History, New York: Free Press, 2011, p. 77.  (6) “TVA Goes to War,” Tennessee Valley Authority, http://www.tva.com/heritage/war/index.htm, accessed March 1, 2015.  (7) See note 2.  (8) “Obama Proposal To Sell TVA Blasted By Republicans,” Associated Press, Huffington Post, April 16, 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/16/obama-tva_n_3090958.html, accessed March 1, 2015.

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