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Highlands lowering lake for major repairs

fr damLake Sequoyah in Highlands is currently being drained in preparation for completing about $3 million in repairs to the dam.

Town Manager Bob Frye said a valve would be installed at the bottom of the 80-year-old dam, which will enable the town to lower the water in the future if needed. The project also includes installation of a raw water intake and leak repairs. 

“We don’t do a lot of maintenance on the dam, so it’s in better shape than we thought it would be, but we have to keep it in good shape,” Frye said.

He said state loans were paying for about 80 percent of the $2.8 million project and the town would pay for the rest up front. The project won’t be complete until November, but Frye said the water would be back up in May — just in time for summer recreation on the lake.

Planning for the project began four years ago, and construction and engineering contracts were signed in November 2014. The town of Highlands owns the dam and the water, which supplies most of the town’s drinking water, but individual property owners own access points around the lake.

The dam was constructed in 1916 and a hydropower plant below the dam served as the town’s first electric system. The town took the plant out of service in 1968 and sold the power-generating equipment in the 70s, according to Frye. 

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Even though it’s been out of service for more than 40 years, Highlands resident and Realtor Tucker Chambers has been advocating for the town to get the hydropower plant back in commission to supply power for residents.

Aside from the exorbitant costs associated with reinstalling a hydropower plant and the tedious process of getting a permit through the federal government, Frye said such a plant on Lake Sequoyah wouldn’t come close to meeting the town’s power needs.  

“It wasn’t capable of meeting electricity needs of the town and it’s not been used for 50 years — there’s just a shell of a building,” he said. “In 2013, we looked at revitalizing it, but the project was estimated to cost $5 million and would be a three- to five-year process.”

He said the former hydropower plant generated only about 1 megawatt of power a month, but the town uses about 10 to 15 megawatts per month. Furthermore, he said, the town no longer owns the property where the hydropower plant was housed because it reverted back to national forest property once it was taken out of service. 

“Mr. Chambers is convinced we’re giving away a valuable resource,” Frye said. “We admire his passion, but he’s saying opinion as facts.”

Chambers said having a hydropower plant would allow the town to turn a profit and also be self-sufficient by supplying its own electricity. 

Frye disagreed. 

“Electrical rates would probably go up if the town did that,” he said. “Add cost of maintenance, and it’s a no-win situation for the town.”

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