he Oconaluftee River originates in the Smoky Mountains and drops about 2,000 feet over 10 miles as it winds through Swain and Jackson counties before connecting with the Tuckaseigee, where the waters continue their journey to other rivers before eventually discharging into the Gulf of Mexico.
A hiccup in that journey is the Ela Dam, a structure built nearly a century ago as part of the sorely-needed rural electrification push; today, in terms of being a power provider, Ela is little more than a footnote, generating only enough power to light a few hundred homes on the best of days.
On the flip side, the dam is a roadblock to an open Oconaluftee and its tributaries upstream, cutting off spawning areas used by culturally important fish species for thousands of years prior to its construction.
A coalition has formed to push for removal of the dam, a push that gained extra urgency following an accidental sediment release two years back that ravaged the clear waters below the dam. On board are the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, Mainspring, the Southern Environmental Law Center, American Rivers and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, whose secretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Joey Owle, has been a driving force.
In an American Rivers release, Owle said, “The tribe has always had an interest in restoring connectivity to our waterbodies, and the Ela Dam has disconnected our river and aquatic relatives for nearly 100 years. When I began this position in 2017, removing Ela Dam was one of the first ideas I pitched to my staff and leadership.
“The accidental sediment release coincided with an unprecedented funding opportunity from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law,” he said. “That, coupled with determined parties all around ready to pursue the idea of reconnecting 188 square miles of the watershed through a social and environmental justice lens, was perfect timing. I am grateful that Chuck Ahlrichs (of dam owner Northbrook) took my call in December 2021, and with a team of exceptional partners, we were able to come together to create an opportunity from the ground up.”
Northbrook currently operates 26 hydro facilities across 12 states, mostly grouped in Michigan, California, Arkansas and South Carolina. The Ela operation is small, doesn’t net much money and is showing its age.
Folks in this area recall the controversy over the removal of the Dillsboro Dam. In that case, the dam was a long-lived, highly visible landmark hooked at the hip to the town’s history. That’s not the case with the Ela Dam, tucked off a stretch of winding road it’s best not to take your eyes off.
In short, there are plenty of arguments for the dam’s removal, and a dearth of cases to leave it standing.
To date, according to American Rivers, 56 dams across the state have been removed to restore river health. The Ela initiative could prove to be a model for dam removal.
That could come in handy, as North Carolina is home to thousands of dams, and a lot of them are aging. A 2022 report said 35 dams fell into both the “unsatisfactory” condition and “high hazard’’ classifications, meaning they pose potential hazards to people, homes, utilities and roads. With 100-year storms becoming more a norm than an aberration these days, a blueprint for removal could come in handy for dams that can’t be brought up to grade in a cost-efficient manner.
The Ela facility isn’t a disaster waiting to happen. It’s just old and a plug on the natural flow of an ancient watershed. We wish the coalition hoping to restore that watershed a successful end to their efforts.