Removing a century-old dam would restore species and reconnect communities, but will it be funded?
For nearly a century, the Ela Dam in the North Carolina mountains has provided electricity but also altered wildlife habitats and disconnected the community. Land conservation and environmental groups have joined the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in an ambitious plan to remove the aging dam. But that hinges on getting millions of dollars in federal funding.
The Ela Dam opened in 1925 across the Oconaluftee River in Swain County, on the Tennessee border. It's 36 feet high and a little more than a football field wide. A half-mile downstream, the Oconaluftee meets the Tuckasegee River. Upstream, the river and its tributaries flow through the Qualla Boundary — the land of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
"Ela Dam has disconnected our entire watershed and our tribal lands for nearly a century," said Joey Owle, the tribe's secretary of agriculture and natural resources.
Besides cutting the Cherokee off from the river system, the dam prevents aquatic species from migrating upstream to Cherokee lands, Owle said.
Some of those species are endangered or at risk, including a sucker fish called the Sicklefin Redhorse that was once an important food source; the Eastern Hellbender, one of the world's largest salamanders and the Appalachian Elktoe, a fresh-water mussel. Owle said efforts to manually reintroduce wildlife from below the dam to upstream beyond the dam have had mixed results.
"What we aim to do is really bring back the natural processes of the various species, aquatic relatives, on this landscape here," he said. "This dam has served its purpose. Let's get back to restoring nature as it was."
Removing a dam is the best way to restore a stream, said Erin McCombs, a biologist and the Southeast Conservation Director with American Rivers. The national group specializes in river restoration. The organization is a partner in the Ela Dam project.
"When you remove a dam, you allow the species to move. Especially in light of climate change, we know that habitat conditions are changing. So the more habitat, the more room to move we can give species, is really good," McCombs said.
There's also evidence that lakes created by human-made dams can contribute to global warming because decaying plant matter releases methane.
"One thing that science is just starting to get a better understanding of is the impact of flooded lands," McCombs said. "Man-made reservoirs are contributing methane to the environment, which is a major greenhouse gas and a driver of climate change."
A trend of dam removals
Dozens of dams are removed nationwide every year, some because they've fallen into disrepair and others as part of efforts to restore rivers and wildlife habitats.
Most are small private dams. But occasionally, they can be significantly larger, like some projects in the West. McCombs calls the Ela Dam the "Klamath of the East," comparing it to one of the nation's largest such projects — a series of four dams being removed on the Klamath River in California and Oregon.
The Ela Dam is smaller than those but bigger than most of the 56 mostly small dams removed in North Carolina in recent decades, including 22 in 2021, according to American Rivers.
Owle says the tribe has been looking for a way to remove the dam for years, but its owners were never interested. That changed in October 2021, when software automatically triggered the dam's gates to open unexpectedly, sending about 130,000 cubic feet (about 8,000 tons) of sediment from behind the dam downriver.
"When the release happened, this free-flowing water that you see here beside of us, you could actually walk from one bank of this river to the other. There was that much sediment that came out of the impoundment. … It was quite shocking," said Jordan Smith, executive director of Mainspring Conservation Trust of Franklin, a local land trust that's a partner in the removal project.
After the incident, Owle called the president of the dam's owner, Northbrook Carolina Hydro, and popped the question: Can this dam be removed?
"And to my own surprise, they're like, yeah, let's get a conversation (going) on this, bring some partners to the table," Owle said.
By November 2022, multiple groups had signed an agreement to pursue removal. Besides the Cherokee, American Rivers, the land trust and Northbrook they include the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Southern Environmental Law Center. Mainspring eventually would manage the project and funding, Smith said.
"There's no single entity that can do this on their own. We realize that it's that size of a project," he said.
Once needed, but now 'a drop in the bucket'
The Ela Dam, also known as the Bryson Hydroelectric Project, was built in the 1920s to bring electricity to the rural area just east of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. At the time it was enough to power Bryson City and the surrounding area. Today, its 1-megawatt of generating capacity is tiny compared to the 2,000-megawatt power plants on the grid.
Duke Energy owned the dam from 1988 until 2019, when it was sold to Northbrook along with four other dams. Curt Whittaker now manages the dam for Northbrook.
"One megawatt is less than a drop in the bucket in the regional power grid," Whittaker said. "You can get the same amount of power over the course of a year from a solar project taking a few acres with a lot less impact on the environment."
While the dam makes money for Northbrook, its age and the 2021 spill showed it also can be a liability. Whittaker said removing the sediment from 1/4-mile of the Oconaluftee River after the spill cost just under $400,000 — equal to several years' operating costs for the dam. Given its age and potential for further repairs or spills, it made sense to consider divesting.
"We spent money, we tried to do the right thing and the river is in good shape. And it's nothing that we ever want to go through again," Whittaker said.
At the same time, he said the company also recognizes the societal and environmental benefits of removing the dam.
"When you just stand back and look at this thing, alright, it's one megawatt, but it's on a river that flows out of a national park, and then flows through the Qualla boundary. Both of those are very special, unique kinds of places. And this dam is separating those places from the downstream watershed and has for 100 years," Whittaker said.
Restoring the river and wildlife
The project would restore not only the 60 acres around the dam but also 549 miles of tributaries upstream. McCombs said removal will take about three years for planning, permitting and other approvals, and demolition. And then:
"Life comes back almost immediately. We see the aquatic insects restore themselves in about six months, fish maybe like a year to three years. And then freshwater mussels take quite a lot longer to restore somewhere between three and 10 years," McCombs said. "But right away, you see improvements with the free-flowing stream. And it's really exciting."
The agreement calls for Northbrook to donate the dam to the partners, which would be responsible for removal. Eventually, the plan is to turn the property over to the Cherokee.
But first, there's the small matter of funding. Altogether, the dam removal project could cost $8 million to $12 million. The partners have asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for $10 million and they'll be looking to private, state and federal sources for the rest.
Tim Gestwicki of the North Carolina Wildlife Federation says the project fits the intent of the federal 2021 bipartisan infrastructure act.
"It meets all the criteria the Fish and Wildlife Service has for environmental justice, endangered species, free-flowing rivers," he said. "So the money is there. We hope and pray that won't we won't miss this opportunity."
But that opportunity won't last long. Whittaker, the dam manager, says Northbrook either must sell the dam or sign a new power purchase agreement with Duke Energy by August 2024. Federal officials are supposed to decide on funding by June.