trash rack

Smith Mountain Lake

Smith Mountain Lake is a large artificial lake southeast of Roanoke, Virginia, and southwest of Lynchburg, Virginia. Initial proposals were made in the late 1920s to dam the Roanoke River and the Blackwater River at the Smith Mountain gorge to generate electricity. Construction on the dam began in 1960 and was completed in 1963. The lake reached its normal water level in March 1966. The lake is and has over of shoreline. The north shore of the lake lies entirely in Bedford County. The majority of the south shore of the lake lies in Franklin County while a portion, including access to the dam, lies in Pittsylvania County.

The area lies in a broad valley nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of rural south-central Virginia of the Appalachian chain. Before the lake's creation, farming and logging were the primary industries. Communities around the lake include Moneta, Huddleston, Union Hall, White House, Penhook and Goodview. There is no post office with a Smith Mountain Lake mailing address. The Booker T. Washington National Monument is near the west end of the lake.

The dam produces pumped-storage hydroelectricity. Water flows through the dam turbines into Leesville Lake during the day (high demand time) to produce supplemental electricity. Water is then pumped from Leesville lake back into Smith Mountain Lake at night (low demand time). The dam is operated by Appalachian Power, part of American Electric Power.

The level of the lake varies during the day and night, as water flows through (and is pumped back through) the dam. The normal maximum level of the lake (also known as "Full Pond") is regulated to above sea level. The normal observed level (also known as "normal pond") is . The level can be significantly lower during periods of extended drought. Lake levels were about six feet below normal from time to time, during the years 2001 to 2003, after five years of below-average rainfall.

Smith Mountain Lake has become a popular recreational area. Fishing is very popular, especially for striped bass. The lake has hosted professional fishing tournaments. Boating, water skiing, wakeboarding, and riding personal watercraft are also common activities. Smith Mountain Lake State Park opened in 1983 and provided a beach and a section for swimming. Golf at one of the several nearby courses is a popular landside activity.

The lake was featured prominently in the 1991 movie comedy What About Bob?, directed by Frank Oz and starring Bill Murray, Richard Dreyfuss and Julie Hagerty. It served as the stand-in for Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire.



AEP is licensed to operate the Smith Mountain Project by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The initial license term was for fifty years. In 1998, AEP began the process of relicensing which should be complete in 2009. The new license term may be up to fifty years. Under the requirements of relicensing, AEP is required to perform numerous studies to determine management requirements during the upcoming license term. Once the new license is issued, amending AEP's license will become much more difficult.

Shoreline management

In 1998, the FERC required AEP to devise and implement a shoreline management plan. The Shoreline Management Plan (SMP) limits the development of all property within the "project boundary." Local zoning regulations have been effectively superseded by the SMP regulations. AEP acts as the permitting agency. Any variance requests are reviewed by interested State and Federal agencies such as Virginia Dept of Game and Inland Fisheries. Disagreements must first proceed to the FERC, then be appealed through the Federal Judicial System.

The SMP has been controversial for several reasons:

  • AEP claims to own the property within the project boundary. However, AEP only acquired flowage easements for much of the property. Many private property owners objected under the opinion that the Federal Government, leveraging AEP's claim to property ownership, has usurped private property rights.
  • While the SMP was under development, AEP was required to consult with various "stakeholders" affected by the plan. Marina operators were significant objectors to the process, since no marina operators were consulted until very late in the process, and then, only indirectly via the chamber of commerce and after protest.
  • Although the SMP deals largely with the design of docks, dock builders were only consulted very late in the process and only indirectly via the chamber of commerce.
  • In addition to marina operators and dock builders being initially left out of the process, only one property developer was represented. However, several representatives of area home owner associations, which are often at odds with residential and commercial development, did participate starting early in the process.
  • While AEP verbally stated it does not intend to charge annual fees to maintain property owners' dock "privileges", AEP reserves its right to do so in the SMP.
  • There is concern that, since the project is licensed by the FERC, that AEP is more concerned with Federal issues than local matters. Objectors claim that the terms of the SMP do not hold AEP accountable to local concerns. For example, there is no requirement for AEP to process a permit application in a timely manner (as is required by the state for local zoning.)
  • Objectors claim that the SMP assumes AEP's goodwill due to lack of any practical checks against AEP and FERC oversight. While AEP's decisions can be argued in the court system, the burden of legal costs on individuals have prevented any practical law suites.
  • Docks existing prior to the implementation of the SMP are not entirely grandfathered; only the "footprint" of the existing docks and only then if the docks are well-maintained. For example, enclosures exceeding the current SMP requirements will not be permitted to be replaced.


Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the area around Smith Mountain Lake remained rural and remote with tobacco farms and other agriculture. The limited early residential developments around the lake consisted largely of small trailer parks and modest houses. However, residential growth has been steady since the mid-1980s and increasingly upscale with large lakefront houses, condominiums, and communities centered around golf courses. The lake has both attracted those who commute to Roanoke and Lynchburg and retirees, many of whom have relocated from the Northeast. By the late 1990s, the number and affluence of the new residents resulted in the construction of new retail and commercial developments near the lake. Shoreline development has been limited to residential construction. With the enactment of Federal oversight of shoreline development in 1998 coupled with soaring real estate values, there is an escalating loss of public access to the lake as the lake's marinas are sold for residential development.

State Route 122 is the only primary highway that crosses the lake, though State Route 24, State Route 116, and State Route 40 are nearby.

Recreational Access

The majority of access to the lake is through private residential property. Marinas provide the majority of public access, but are increasingly being converted to private, residential developments due to economic and regulatory pressure. Recreation Use Assessment

Two key public access points to Smith Mountain Lake include the Smith Mountain Lake State Park (located on the Bedford County side of the lake off of Smith Mountain Parkway--Route 626) and the Smith Mountain Community Park (located on the Franklin County side of Smith Mountain Lake).

Marinas with Public Services

  • Parkway Marina - Boat Rentals, Boat Ramp, Fuel and a Ship's Store are available to the general public
  • Bridgewater Marina - Boat Rentals, Fuel and a Ship's Store are available to the general public
  • Smith Mountain Dock & Lodge - Boat Rentals, Fuel and a Ship's Store are available to the general public
  • Mitchels Point Marina - Boat Rentals, Fuel and a Ship's Store are available to the general public
  • Sportsmans Marina - Full-Service Restaurant, Boat Rentals, and Fuel are available to the general public


Cachalot was the first commercial saturation diving system and was designed by Westinghouse Electric Corporation, Underseas Division (Tom O'Neill and Alan Krassburg) for use in clearing the trash rack of the Smith Mountain Dam in Virginia. The system consisted of a large chamber Deck Decompression Chamber or DDC and a Personnel Transfer Capsule (PTC) which could be mated to the DDC at pressure. The divers lived in the DDC and went back and forth to work in the PTC. The operation was between depths of 159 and and lasted for four months beginning in August 1965. To do the job using contemporary conventional techniques would have entailed draining the whole reservoir, a two year job. To do the job using two divers at a time from saturation replaced 32 divers using normal surface diving techniques. This system was the forerunner of the great explosion of commercial diving systems which soon spread across the world. In fact, the first at sea commercial saturation dive was done in 1966 in the Gulf of Mexico using this same system.


  • The Smith Mountain Lake Wine Festival is a popular event at the lake each year. Held the last Saturday and Sunday in September, the 2008 celebration will be held September 27 and 28 and will mark the 20th anniversary. Each year 27 Virginia-based wineries participate, as well as 85 food and craft vendors.
  • Smith Mountain Lake Fireworks and Fire Company Fundraiser - This is a fundraiser for the Saunders Vol. Fire Co. It is likely the most well attended event on Smith Mountain Lake with estimated attendance in the tens of thousands of observers. Established by Parkway Marina in 1991, the Saunders Volunteer Fire Company has organized the event since 2001 as a fundraiser. Primarily due to low donations, the fire company considered canceling the event after 2007. In April 2008, the fire company announced the 2008 event would happen on July 5th but would not commit to future years. The first fireworks display was presented by Smith Mtn Lake Dock & Lodge in the 1980s and continued until 2006.
  • White House Fall Festival - Canceled after 2007 due to an increase in competing events.
  • Memorial Poker Run
  • Charity Home Tour
  • Bedford Area Chamber of Commerce Beach Bash - Presented by The Bedford Area Chamber of Commerce as an opportunity to unwind while listening to great beach music and enjoying food, refreshments and a day at Smith Mountain Lake. The event takes place at Parkway Marina
  • Smith Mountain Lake Wakefest & Virginia Commonwealth Games Wakeboarding Tournament hosted by Wake N Skate Pro Wakeboard Shop. For the past six years, on the third Saturday of July thousands gather to watch accomplished wakeboarders in Virginia compete.
  • ESPN BASSmasters Elite - First held at Smith Mountain Lake in 2007, this is a major televised tournament attracting professional anglers from through-out the world. The event includes numerous on-site activitied for the general public. The 2007 event was held at Parkway Marina, which will also be the site for the 2009 and 2010 tournament.

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