Duke Energy has received a new 30-year permit to operate its five hydroelectric dams in Jackson County, which could pave the way for new economic and recreational opportunities along the Tuckasegee River.
Kayaking for several days a year on the upper reaches, for instance, with the power company agreeing to open up Lake Glenville Dam for water releases into the old streambed. New hiking on a future trail below Lake Glenville Dam down to the Paradise Falls area. Nine new river-access areas — including a portage — around Cullowhee Dam near Western Carolina University.
But don’t get too excited. The work could take years to complete, easily up to a decade or more.
“There’s tremendous work involved with the implementation of the license,” said Mark Singleton, a member of the stakeholder groups and executive director of American Whitewater, a national nonprofit headquartered in Sylva that promotes river conservation, access and safety.
Duke District Manager Fred Alexander also indicated the work isn’t over.
“We’re pleased to be at this stage, not the end, but the beginning of the end,” he said.
Duke must get new permits from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission every 30 or so years to operate the dams. The process, known as relicensing, spells out what mitigation Duke must conduct to offset the environmental impacts of the hydro network.
Debate raged for nearly 10 years over how much Duke owes Jackson County in exchange for harnessing the Tuckasegee River with numerous dams. And Ken Westmoreland, the former county manager who spearheaded the county’s long fight against Duke, said Jackson has gotten the short end of the stick.
“We felt Jackson County’s citizens were being shortchanged in the long run,” Westmoreland said. “We knew in comparable relicensing across the country, other jurisdictions received substantially more than Duke has offered, which is basically a pittance.”
Westmoreland led the county into a protracted and costly legal fight in hopes of exacting more from Duke. Since the centerpiece of Duke’s mitigation was tearing down the Dillsboro dam, that was what the fight centered on, but saving the dam wasn’t the county’s primary objective, Westmoreland said.
“It was trying to find a method to get Duke to ante up considerably more in funds over the long haul for multiple purposes — recreation, stream-bank restoration and other conservation endeavors the county was interested in,” Westmoreland said.
Duke prevailed in the end when Jackson gave up on its battle, and within weeks of that decision the power company took out the dam. Restoring free flowing river will help threatened aquatic species, improve river habitat and set the stage for a river shore park.
Enhanced recreation opportunities along the Tuckasegee could help the county’s economic big picture, too.
“Quality recreation opportunities drive economic opportunities,” Singleton said.
For instance, additional put-ins will cater more to the increasing driftboat fishing traffic being seen on sections of the Tuckasegee.
Re-licensing for dams on the Nantahala River area — these were for the Tuckasegee River watershed — are expected soon.
By Quintin Ellison & Becky Johnson
A Duke timeline
• 1964: A court case results in hydro projects in the U.S. being placed under the jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
• 1980-1981: The original 25-year licenses on the hydroelectric projects on the Tuckasegee and Nantahala rivers are issued to Nantahala Power and Light.
• 1988: Duke Energy purchases Nantahala Power and Light from Alcoa, a 1,729-square-mile service area, with 14 dams on five rivers serving 11 hydroelectric generating plants.
• 1999: Duke starts a public involvement process to develop a mitigation package as part of the next relicensing process. Two stakeholder teams were formed for the Tuckasegee and Nantahala, comprised of environmentalists, paddlers, fishermen and local government leaders.
• 2003: Stakeholders agreed, although not unanimously, to a mitigation package. The centerpiece is removing the Dillsboro Dam. Jackson County is among the parties who dissent. Macon County, the town of Franklin, and Dillsboro express dissatisfaction as well.
• 2004: Jackson County begins a legal fight against Duke, appealing various aspects of the relicensing at every step of the way.
• 2007: FERC sides with Duke in saying that removing the Dillsboro Dam, built in 1927, will suffice as mitigation by restoring a section of free-flowing river, reconnecting habitat and providing river recreation.
• January 2010: Jackson County concedes it has lost the battle against Duke.
• February 2010: The dam is removed, clearing the way for new licenses to be approved and promised mitigation to get under way.
• May 2011: FERC formally approves re-licensing agreements for Duke’s hydro projects on the Tuckasegee River.