Officials say a new state grant could lay the groundwork for a combined water-intake system at the Cullowhee Dam.

Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority members adopted a resolution Tuesday to accept $50,000 from the N.C. Division of Water Resources to explore a potential partnership with Western Carolina University. Both entities have intake systems that utilize the impoundment created by the dam, which supplies water for most Jackson County residents and students.

The state’s study will explore the option to combine TWSA and WCU’s water systems under one entity, or for the systems to become “regionalized,” where they are bound together by interlocal agreements.

In a separate effort, local officials, with the help of national nonprofit American Rivers, are investigating whether it’d be possible to operate a combined intake system without the Cullowhee Dam in place.

“We think it’s a good deal for us, especially with what’s going to happen with the dam,” TWSA Director Dan Harbaugh said. “We’re already talking about how the two of us work together for the future, if the dam stays or if it goes. This will be useful information for us regardless.”

American Rivers is a strong advocate for the environmental and recreational benefits associated with removing dams. The organization’s latest report said water-quality requirements could be met without the structure in place.

It recommended dam demolition and a new, combined intake at an estimated cost of $5 million.

This system could be built at the deepest possible point of the Tuckaseigee River, allowing it to withdraw water at the lowest flows, the report said.

Decision makers, however, weren’t quite convinced.

Both TWSA and WCU leaders submitted questions and comments to American Rivers as the report neared completion. They disagreed with a statement in the report saying the engineering approach for an in-channel intake system had been validated. Questions remain, officials said, such as how much maintenance would cost, what benefits a “run-of-river system” would bring over repairing the dam and keeping the intakes as they are, and what would happen if Duke Energy isn’t able to adjust water levels during extreme dry spells.

Many of these comments, according to the nonprofit, were beyond the scope of that study but could be addressed in further planning or in the design phase of a dam-removal project.

Officials say the next step is for American Rivers, TWSA and WCU to present information in front of local governments, in part to seek their buy-in. County leaders are organizing a joint meeting, likely to be held in July.