Cullowhee Dam

By Tanner Hall

Officials from across the county are meeting to discuss two of the most pressing issues facing the community: N.C. 107 construction and the fate of Cullowhee Dam.

The joint meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday, July 23, in the Heritage Room of the Jackson County Senior Center. Commissioners, as well as leaders from the county’s four municipalities and the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority, will participate.

Brian Burch, 14th division engineer with the N.C. Department of Transportation, will provide an update on the N.C. 107 project, and Rich Price, county economic development director, will provide information from the N.C. 107 Resource Team.

Price said this group came together late last year “with the hope of asking the right questions” about the project and its potential impact to local businesses.

“We have assumed that the project will move forward as has been presented to the public, and in short, we are trying to make sure that we can provide access to resources for those businesses that will be impacted, either slightly, moderately or significantly,” Price said. “And as those design plans are further refined in the coming months, we can then formulate a plan for outreach for providing as much resource information to individual businesses as is possible.”

Here is how DOT proposes to improve safety and traffic congestion along Sylva’s primary economic corridor:

• Eliminate the center turn lane on N.C. 107 in favor of a 17.5-foot grass median. This would separate the two lanes of southbound traffic from two lanes of northbound traffic, with sidewalks replaced and a 5-foot bike lane added.

• Provide similar upgrades for the N.C. 107/U.S. 23 Business intersection, and from U.S. 23 Business to Dillardtown Road and Municipal Drive, near the Sylva Fire Department. 

Last month, David Uchiyama, DOT communications officer, told the Herald plans for the project were 60 percent complete. They should be 75 percent complete by October.

From last spring to January, the number of possible business relocations as a result of the construction had dropped from 55 to 39. This coincided with significant community outcry, prompting Sylva board members to partner with outside groups to try to minimize impacts.

The N.C. 107 Resource Team has engaged with the community’s two main business outreach centers: the Southwestern Community College’s Small Business Center and Western Carolina University’s Small Business and Technology Development Center.

“Quite simply, we’re collectively trying to be able to provide the right assistance to the entire business community as is possible, once this 107 improvement project gets the green light,” Price said.

TWSA Director Dan Harbaugh will speak to local officials about the Cullowhee Dam. He will update them on the work that has been completed so far – an initial study by WCU and another by the national nonprofit American Rivers – and discuss next steps before a decision can be made about its future.

WCU owns the 7-foot-tall, 150-foot-long dam spanning the Tuckaseigee River near the back entrance to campus, along Old Cullowhee Road. The structure creates an impoundment for both the university and the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority to draw water. In short, TWSA provides thousands of local residents and students rely on the dam for a healthy water supply.

Schnabel Engineering, a subcontractor with Asheville-based McGill Associates, inspected the dam in 2017. Engineers with Schnabel observed riverbank erosion and “severe concrete deterioration” on the right end of the dam overflow structure, looking downstream, along with an estimated “3.5-foot undercut.”

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 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.

Representatives from TWSA, American Rivers and WCU will attend the joint meeting, Harbaugh said. There will be a question-and-answer period following the discussion, he said.

TWSA also has a shared interest in the N.C. 107 project.

The agency continues to review the most recent plans available through the DOT and work with the regional company Vaughn and Melton Consulting Engineers, which has been retained to design the water-and-sewer components as part of construction.

“We anticipate having our preliminary project approach for water and sewer improvements forwarded to DOT in early August, and at that point discussions with the TWSA board will begin again regarding the project’s impact on TWSA customers,” Harbaugh said.

TWSA board members have discussed creating a policy to allow entrepreneurs in the construction footprint to transfer their water-and-sewer allocations.

Allocations now are tied to a piece of property, not to its owner. When a business moves, the owner must find a location with water and sewer already secured or face thousands of dollars in tap fees.

The agency’s policy committee – a group made up of Sylva board member David Nestler, Webster Mayor Tracy Rodes and Dillsboro representative Buddy Parton – agreed in October the agency should allow transfers for business operators on N.C. 107 who also own their property.

Committee members split 1-2 on whether to craft a similar policy for renters’ benefit.

Nestler voted in favor, arguing the majority of businesses involved are renting their space.

Rodes and Parton indicated they’re open to helping renters as well; however, they said it was too early to determine how.