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Stories from the Smokies

Most of the time, Fontana Dam just quietly goes about its job of generating hydroelectricity for the Tennessee Valley Authority. Built in the 1940s, the 480 foot concrete structure is the tallest dam in the eastern United States, empounding the 10,230-acre Fontana Lake in western Swain County.

In rare instances (sometimes years apart), the TVA has to release water in a controlled fashion, either to create flood storage capacity on Fontana Lake or to release excessive water. For dams like Fontana, the choices are either to sluice or to spill.

A spillway simply allows excess water to flow over the top of the dam, maintaining a maximum lake level. But because Fontana needs more control over water levels, the choice is sluicing – carrying water away from the lower depth of the lake.

The dam has a set of three ‘sluice’ gates near the bottom of the dam. Water flows in through tunnels and is released when the gates are open. To keep the force of the water from scouring out the river bed, a ramp is situated at the bottom of the sluice tube to divert the water, and that creates a very impressive rooster tail.

Sluicing is needed rarely. The results of sluicing are spectacular and can be enjoyed without worry. The river will stay within its banks. Controlled flow eliminates the worry about damage to property or life. The water then moves through the river system past Knoxville, Chattanooga and up into the Ohio River.

To learn more about sluicing timelines, visit

You can view the sluicing at either the Fontana Dam Basin (base) or from the top of Fontana Dam.

Directions to Fontana Dam:
• From downtown Bryson City, merge onto US-74 W
• In 8.3 miles, turn right onto NC-28 N
• In 21.3 miles, you will come to a stop sign.

Directions to the top of TVA Fontana Dam:
• Turn right at the stop sign onto Fontana Dam Road
• Go 1.2 miles to the parking area and visitor center

Directions to Fontana Dam Basin:
• Turn left at the stop sign to stay on NC-28 N
• Go 3 miles, and turn right at the TVA sign (right after going over the river)

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