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WCU and TWSA to consider merging water systems

Cullowhee Dam. File photo Cullowhee Dam. File photo

Western Carolina University and the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority will explore the possibility of combining their water systems following receipt of a $50,000 grant from the State Water Infrastructure Authority, which the TWSA board voted to accept at its June 18 meeting. 

The money will fund a study from Asheville-based McGill Associates looking into the technical, financial, organizational and governance aspects of merging the two systems’ facilities and operations. The process will result in a written report for TWSA and WCU, laying out the feasibility of combining the systems and the path to achieving that goal, should the organizations wish to pursue it. WCU and TWSA will pay $375 apiece for the 1.5 percent grant fee outlined in the award letter. 

The outcome of the study could have an impact on the outcome of another decision-making process concerning WCU and TWSA: whether it’s a good idea to remove the Cullowhee Dam. 

“If dam removal is feasible without compromising the quality and quantity of our water resource, costs could potentially be reduced by having a shared intake rather than providing two, as we currently maintain,” said Mike Byers, WCU’s vice chancellor for administration and finance.

A study American Rivers commissioned to investigate the feasibility of removing the dam had included a shared intake as part of the potential solution. 

“The NDEQ-DWI funded study will be accomplished in parallel with the next steps that are needed to complete the discussions on the disposition of the dam,” said Dan Harbaugh, TWSA’s executive director. “It needs to be included in the decision-making process for next steps on the dam, but doesn’t drive the decision on the dam removal.”

Built in 1930, the dam, owned by WCU, is in bad shape and needs an estimated $900,000 in repairs if it’s to remain structurally sound. However, the nonprofit American Rivers would like to see a different outcome — complete dam removal. 

Getting rid of the structure would have significant environmental and recreational benefits, as dams prevent fish and other aquatic species from moving through the river, inundate river habitat, impair water quality and generally alter the water’s natural flow, American Rivers says. Rivers without dams are also more attractive for recreation, and a long-term effort to create a river park in the area would benefit should the dam be removed. 

Though American Rivers believes it could raise the funds, getting rid of the dam wouldn’t be cheap — the cost is loosely estimated at $5 to $7 million — and because both WCU and TWSA have water intakes in the pool the dam creates in the Tuckasegee River, the entities would need assurance that their water supply wouldn’t suffer should the dam be demolished. 

Both TWSA and WCU have said that they support dam removal if it can be accomplished without adversely affecting their ability to serve their customers. In December 2018, McGill Associates completed the preliminary version of the American Rivers report on the feasibility of dam removal. The results of that report were encouraging, concluding that the existing flow of the Tuckasegee is adequate to meet the needs of the water systems without the extra water storage a dam provides. 

However, WCU and TWSA had reservations about that finding. The final report, completed in March, includes 23 pages of follow-up from WCU and TWSA, including a three-page letter and 10 pages of specific comments. The remaining 10 pages is a copy of a study done on the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ water system that deals with some parallel issues. 

The comments raise questions about many of the methods and conclusions found in the report. For instance, they question why the report didn’t explore solutions other than dam removal, why it didn’t consider economic opportunities afforded by the dam’s continued existence when discussing the “expanded economic opportunity” dam removal would provide and whether there are ecological benefits to the dam remaining in place to consider opposite the benefits achieved by removing the dam. 

The comments focus heavily on the report’s conclusion that the dam is not necessary to meet the water intake needs of WCU and TWSA. There is no stream gauge at the Cullowhee Dam, so the calculation of water supply there must be based on the watershed area — meaning that numbers on flow levels at the site in question are estimates, not exact figures. In addition, flow levels on the Tuck are influenced by Duke Energy releases upstream at Lake Glenville. During the drought of 2016, Duke made a series of unscheduled releases in order to augment the water supply for customers relying on river intakes — in the future, such releases may or may not be an option. 

“Given the importance and risk of ensuring a viable (quality and quantity) raw water source for future generations, it needs to be strongly stated in the final report that pilot studies will need to be completed on the river in an area that would closely match the river conditions that would exist at the proposed intake site once the dam is removed,” WCU and TWSA wrote. “It is only when this data is available that the full impact of the dam removal on the raw water supply and the pre-treatment/treatment processes at the two water plants can be identified.”

American Rivers’ final report does not include any extensive changes or results of additional study from the draft version completed in December — the final report does not address all of WCU’s concerns, said Byers. However, he said, the groups are working together to find answers addressing those concerns. 

“We continue to work with WCU and TWSA on the next steps including what additional information needs to exist for WCU to decide on whether to remove the dam,” said Erin McCombs, American Rivers’ conservation director for Southern Appalachia. “I’m optimistic.”

“I am hopeful that there’s a way to remove the dam without negatively impacting our water supply,” Byers added. “But we still don’t have all the information we need to say with certainty.”


Be informed

A joint meeting of Jackson County’s municipal governments will be held at 6 p.m. Tuesday, July 23, at the Jackson County Department on Aging to discuss a variety of topics that affect the county as a whole, including the Cullowhee Dam. 

The meeting will include an update on the N.C. 107 project in Sylva, an update on the N.C. 107 Resource Committee and a discussion on the next steps in the Cullowhee Dam study. 

Organizations represented will include the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, Town of Sylva, Town of Dillsboro, Town of Webster and Village of Forest Hills. The Department on Aging is located at 100 County Services Park in Sylva. 828.631.2213. 

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