Despite disavowals to the contrary, don’t make the mistake of thinking only Western Carolina University and the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority are deciding the fate of the dilapidated Cullowhee Dam.

Duke Energy looms large in the decision making.

Cullowhee Dam’s impoundment serves as the raw water source for both the university and TWSA, an agency formed in 1992 to handle water-and-sewer infrastructure for Dillsboro, Webster, Sylva and Jackson County.

Engineers say the WCU-owned dam requires expensive repairs; most seriously, water has undercut the structure.

The dam must be fixed. It could fail.

To their credit, WCU and TWSA officials are interested in the possibility of dam removal, not just patching up the nine-decades-old structure. A full 50 miles of the Tuckaseigee would run free if Cullowhee Dam were demolished. Destroying the dam would be a boon to boaters and the environment alike.

Removal, however, would require WCU and TWSA use a different type of water intake system, piping water from a freely flowing river and not an impoundment. The two institutions must be sure they could draw adequate amounts during drought. And, WCU and TWSA must account for increased water demands in the future, because the university and the community will continue to grow.

In a March 13 letter, Duke Energy cautioned WCU if, for any reason, the dam was gone and there wasn’t adequate water, “Duke Energy would not be able to support releasing higher prescribed flows to meet those needs.”

Duke Energy controls the amount of water that flows into the Tuckaseigee River based on federal-licensing guidelines largely agreed to through a 2003 settlement agreement with 16 designated stakeholders.

And Duke Energy flatly states it would not support revisiting those federal-licensing agreements.

“Rebalancing the water uses in the Tuckaseigee River would require reopening and successfully renegotiating the settlement agreement’s water balance, followed by revising the water quality certifications issued by the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality and finally reopening and amending the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.”

“Based on the expected degree of difficulty, existing knowledge and operating experience, Duke Energy could not support pursuit of a different water balance,” the letter says.

So, Duke Energy, revising the agreement would be a lot of work. Cry us a river, won’t you?

As it stands now, WCU and TWSA can’t begin to consider demolishing the dam. This means Duke Energy, not WCU and TWSA, is largely calling the shots on the removal of Cullowhee Dam.

A few years ago, when the company fought its successful legal battle against Jackson County to demolish Dillsboro Dam, Duke Energy touted the benefits of dam removal to anyone who would listen. Oh, how they loved the endangered Appalachian elktoe mussel in those days!

What’s the difference this time?

Back then, Dillsboro Dam was Duke Energy’s problem.

Cullowhee Dam is taxpayers’ problem.

Duke Energy operates six dams on the Tuckaseigee River’s East and West forks, upstream from Cullowhee Dam.

Duke Energy benefits financially from these Jackson County hydroelectric projects for one reason: the patriotic fervor of mountain people and their support during World War II for dam building.

The time might be upon us when we ask from Duke Energy what Duke’s forebears asked for and received decades ago.

Partnership. Cooperation. Shared responsibilities.

With full control of the upstream, Duke Energy controls the downstream.

It isn’t just a bystander here, and in a very real sense can call the shots. Duke Energy owes the mountain people a hearing on this issue, payment on a decades-long debt.

If Duke Energy doesn’t do its best and step up to help remedy this situation in a manner best to all …

…well, that would be a crying shame.

Quintin Ellison is the editor of The Sylva Herald.