The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia
Monday, 13 November 2023 09:46

Ela dam removal proceeds to make a river run through

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Ela-Dam_Oconaluftee-River_Erin-McCombs28-1-2048x1536.jpgEla Dam on the Oconaluftee River in Cherokee. The dam is slated for removal to benefit aquatic species and the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians.  Erin McCombs

Ela Dam Removal Coalition moving forward after $4 million grant from U.S. Fish and Wildlife to commence river restoration project 

Erin McCombs is the Southeast Conservation Director of American Rivers.

CHEROKEEAmerican Rivers is working with a team on a massive effort to remove the Ela dam and restore the land and Oconaluftee River to its natural condition. Partnering with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI), American Rivers is part of a coalition of federal, state, public, private, and non-profit organizations that has formed to remove the Ela dam.

Truly a village effort, the Ela Dam Coalition includes the EBCI, American Rivers, Mainspring Conservation Trust, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Southern Environmental Law Center, the Environmental Protection Agency, American Whitewater, Swain County, the Army Corps of Engineers, and Northbrook Carolina Hydro II.

“Healthy rivers are essential to all life, and removing a dam is the fastest way to restore a river’s health. We appreciate this initial investment by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in  the restoration of the Oconaluftee River. We look forward to working with them to leverage this investment to fully realize this project to revitalize fish and wildlife habitat and restore vital cultural connections. We are grateful to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians for their leadership, and for the partnership of Mainspring Conservation Trust,” said Tom Kiernan, American Rivers President and CEO.  

Blocking the Oconaluftee River’s natural flow impacts the aquatic habitats of many native fish, mussels, birds, and other wildlife which require it for sheltering, feeding, reproducing, and thriving in their natural environment. The removal of Ela dam will result in a cultural reconnection of the Oconaluftee River to the Cherokee people and the Qualla Boundary. 

The Oconaluftee River is home to 11 sensitive and rare aquatic species, some of which are only found in a few streams and rivers in western North Carolina, including the federally endangered Appalachian elktoe freshwater mussel, the Sicklefin Redhorse (NC Threatened), and Eastern Hellbender (NC Special Concern). Once complete, 549 miles of the Oconaluftee River watershed will be restored and expand habitat for these species. 

Dam backstory

Ela Dam on the Oconaluftee River. Map courtesy of Mainspring Conservation Trust

Constructed nearly 100 years ago by the town of Bryson City to meet the electricity needs of a rural community, Ela dam produces a small amount of hydropower energy: 1MW – roughly enough to power about 385 homes each year. 

In 2019, Northbrook Carolina Hydro II purchased the operational contract from Duke Energy as part of a portfolio of projects and currently owns and operates Ela dam.

In October 2021, an accidental sediment release from the dam triggered notices of violation. Northbrook Carolina began the costly process of sediment removal to regain compliance. 

Seeing an opportunity for partnership and ultimately to restore the Oconaluftee River, the EBCI reached out to Northbrook Carolina about purchasing the dam. Both agreed the social, cultural, economic, and environmental values of reestablishing a free-flowing Oconaluftee River vastly outweighed the one megawatt of energy the dam generates.

Thus, the work of gathering the right coalition partners for the project began. One such partner, Mainspring Conservation Trust, an organization that works to conserve and restore the lands and waters of the Southern Blue Ridge, entered into an Asset Purchase Option and Sale Agreement with Northbrook Carolina to acquire the Ela dam and its surrounding land. 

Fate of a dam in Cherokee

Joey-at-Penobscot-River-Restoration-in-July-2022-1.jpgJoey Owle, an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, talks about his quest to remove a dam, secure the future of native species, and restore Long Man.  Erin McCombs

Righting a wrong in our American history, the land on which the Ela dam sits will eventually be returned to the EBCI, which is the only federally recognized tribe in North Carolina. 

“What started as a pipe dream will now be a reality,” said Joey Owle, Secretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. “Removing the Ela dam will truly be a monumental success story in reconnecting the tribe to a life-giving river that has been a part of our community for thousands of years. I’m beyond elated that the Ela dam removal project is now moving forward full steam ahead and am grateful to all our coalition partners for their hard work in getting this closer to the finish line.”

In August 2022, American Rivers secured initial funding of $800,000 from the NC Wildlife Resources Commission for design, engineering, permitting, project management and communications. Design work is already underway and the new USFWS grant will help to move the project forward as early as 2024, with a goal of completion by the fall of 2025.

The recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which commits $2.4 billion for the removal, retrofit, and rehabilitation of dams, American Rivers applied for $10 million in funding in November 2022 to fund the removal of the dam. Funding was secured in May,2023. Mainspring will issue its Option to Purchase and Northbrook Carolina will file a license surrender application with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

Once FERC issues the license surrender, Northbrook Carolina will disconnect the dam and cease all electricity generation. 

Northbrook will then transfer ownership of Ela dam to the “Ela Dam Project LLC,” created by Mainspring as a holding company. At that point, construction of the dam removal will begin with all necessary permits.

The existing recreational activities and fishing platform will remain after the removal of the dam, allowing locals to continue enjoying the Oconaluftee River.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 28 November 2023 23:42