Tribe leads coalition to remove Ela Dam
What started as a groundswell of outrage over a massive sediment dump from Ela Dam in Swain County has become a united effort to get the nearly 100-year-old structure removed — supported by the company that owns it and led by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
“This is really one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities,” EBCI Secretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources Joey Owle told Tribal Council Feb. 3, presenting a resolution seeking the body’s blessing to start building a coalition of partners pursuing removal.
The resolution passed unanimously and has been signed by Principal Chief Richard Sneed, launching a coalition that includes American Rivers , Mainspring Conservation Trust , the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service , the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers .
Dam removal is an expensive undertaking, but recent federal legislation such as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has made “unprecedented” levels of funding available for dam removal projects like the one proposed for Ela, Owle said. The Act allocates hundreds of millions of dollars that could potentially go toward dam removal efforts — it’s quite possible the tribe won’t have to pay a dime.
The timing has never been better to break down a dam.
“I am just thrilled to be bringing this opportunity,” Owle told Council.
Sitting on the Oconaluftee River half a mile above its confluence with the Tuckasegee, Ela Dam was built to power the tiny logging town of Bryson City in 1925.
Nantahala Power and Light Company bought the structure in 1942, and Duke Energy purchased that company in 1988. The Federal Electric Utilities Commission approved a 30-year license renewal in 2011, and in 2018 Duke sold the dam to Northbrook Energy . Northbrook also owns the Franklin Dam at Lake Emory and the Mission Dam on the Hiawassee River.
Today, Ela Dam fuels the Duke Energy power grid, supplying a steady trickle of clean power just as it’s done for the better part of a century.
Ela Dam is a small impoundment, tucked away along an easy-to-miss gravel drive that departs sharply downhill from Ela Road in Whittier. But it made its way into the headlines and raised the ire of conservationists when an unannounced reservoir drawdown in October dumped a load of sediment so enormous that an N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission survey conducted 10 days later found the riverbed still blanketed with deposits. Of 71 data points the team recorded, a quarter held deposits a foot or more deep. The survey halted shortly after the Oconaluftee River’s confluence with the Tuckasegee because the sediment became so deep it threatened the team’s safety.
Before the spill, little to no sediment covered the rocks and boulders lining this stretch of the Oconaluftee. It was critical habitat for an array of sensitive aquatic species that require clean, oxygenated water. Fish and wildlife experts said the event’s impact to the river’s aquatic inhabitants was likely devastating.
An aerial shot shows sediment deposits downstream of Ela Dam more than two months after the dump occurred, on Dec. 18, 2021. Glenn Industries photo
“Because the sediment deposit is so widespread and deep, we believe it is safe to assume that future species surveys will find that some species have been extirpated from the Oconaluftee River below the Bryson Dam,” Fish and Wildlife Service Field Supervisor Janet Mizzi wrote in a Nov. 24 letter to FERC Secretary Kimberly D. Bose.
The release occurred during an unscheduled emergency drawdown that Northbrook said was necessary to evaluate a breach in one of the stoplogs used to control water flow. Resource agencies like the Fish and Wildlife Service criticized the fact that they were not notified prior to the release occurring, despite public documents showing that Northbrook knew about the stoplog issue for weeks prior to the release and discussed the potential of imminent danger with FERC on Sept. 30. Both the N.C. Department of Water Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued violations in relation to the incident, and FERC required Northbrook to answer a series of questions about it.
In a Dec. 27, 2021, document responding to FERC’s questions, Northbrook President Chuck Ahlrichs said that pandemic labor market disruptions had made it extremely difficult to find a qualified contractor to evaluate the stoplog issue. When the company finally received a response from a qualified firm on Wednesday, Sept. 29, it arranged a site visit on the soonest possible day — Monday, Oct. 4.
With only two working days to prepare, Northbrook contacted FERC, which agreed that the situation warranted an emergency, unscheduled drawdown under the dam’s Lake Level and Flow Management Plan. The plan stipulated that Northbrook could proceed with the drawdown so long as it notified resource agencies within five days of the event, Ahlrichs wrote.
So, at about 9 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 3, generating units were shut down to prevent sediment release, and a controlled drawdown began through a single spillway tainter gate raised 2.1 feet. No “significant” sediment was released during the process, said Ahlrichs.
The dump occurred at about 2:15 p.m. Oct. 3, when the reservoir depth measured 96.5 feet and an apparent programming malfunction caused the gates to open wide.
“The headwater level transducers reached what was later found to be their minimum measurement elevations, and both spillway gates automatically and unexpectedly began opening, causing heavily sedimented water to pass downstream,” reads Ahlrichs’ response. “The plant operator, caught by surprise by the illogical and completely unexpected gate programming action, scrambled to manually override the programming and lower the gates.”
According to the document, the gates were lowered within about 30 minutes, but by that time the reservoir — and much of the sediment it contained — had emptied downstream. One of the gates opened to at least 9 feet during the incident.
In the months since, Northbrook has been embroiled in a tangle of communications with an alphabet soup of government agencies about requirements and recommendations for cleaning up the mess. The company engaged environmental and river restoration consultant Inter-Fluve to assess the damage and then hired Glenn Industries to correct it. Those operations began on Dec. 21, using hoses and sediment bags to vacuum sediment from the riverbed.
In its response to FERC, Northbrook emphasized that the drawdown was “performed in good faith” and that the resulting sediment release has not done the company any favors.
“The sediment release from the Bryson Event was not intended as, nor did the release provide, an operational improvement to the Bryson Project or somehow reduce Licensee’s responsibilities for sediment management,” the document reads. “Quite the contrary, this event was the first of its kind for (Northbrook) in nearly 30 years of hydropower operations, and any meaningful attempt at active remediation represents a cost in excess of the Bryson Project’s aggregate net cash flow for many years.”
Northbrook supports dam removal
In his presentation to Tribal Council, Owle said Northbrook was looking at $1.5 million or more in cleanup costs for a dam whose estimated value is between $500,000 and $1 million. Ahlrich wrote in his response to FERC that the dam brings in only about $55,300 in annual net revenue.
That dismal math is perhaps why the company so readily pledged its support to the dam removal coalition Owle’s department is leading.
“In response to your call for a mitigation plan by February 11, we propose to cooperate with, and assist in the eventual removal of the Ela dam as discussed further below,” reads a Feb. 8 letter from Ahlrichs to Army Corps of Engineers Regulatory Specialist David Brown.
In the letter, Ahlrichs signals his willingness to enter into a binding agreement committing Northbrook to the removal efforts. The company could dedicate net cash flow from the dam toward removal efforts, and transfer ownership of the dam assets to the entity — the EBCI — leading removal efforts, Ahrlichs wrote. He also offered to help vet contractors for in-river operations, review removal plans and work with FERC to gain any regulatory approvals required for the removal effort.
“We believe FERC would cooperate with a dam removal effort led by other federal, state, EBC (sic) and/or local agencies, and we could assist with making the relevant applications and arguments to FERC as we cooperate with FERC license transfer/termination,” reads the document. “But others would need to take the lead in advocating for the appropriation of public funding sources to ultimately remove the Ela dam.”
The EBCI-led partnership aims to fill that role.
“I think they’re probably more excited than I am about what this opportunity is, and the work they could contribute and the funding sources that are out there,” Owle said of the partners in his comments to Council.
While the coalition has received Tribal Council’s endorsement, the effort is still in its infancy. Both Owle and Northbrook declined to offer additional comment outside of those already available through public records and meetings, citing a preference to postpone interviews until formal agreements were complete.
However, Owle told Council that he expects the wheels to move quickly once they start turning.
“When the tribe gets behind a project like this, it makes moves,” he said.
Ela Dam is one of many small impoundments in the mountain region that has been churning out a steady — if slow — stream of energy since the early 1900s.
“Now they’re old and they’re starting to crumble,” said Callie Moore, western regional director for environmental nonprofit MountainTrue. “They’re starting to have high repair costs, and they’re starting to be such a small percentage of revenue for these companies that removing them is becoming an option.”
A photo taken by prominent Swain County pharmacist Kelly “Doc” Bennett shows the Ela Dam under construction in the mid-1920s. Hunter Library/WCU photo
MountainTrue got involved with the Ela issue via a petition it started in January, making a series of four demands to FERC in relation to the incident. The petition’s 546 signatories asked FERC to ensure that the Oconaluftee cleanup continues to the satisfaction of state resource agencies; support the Army Corps of Engineers’ request for a mitigation plan to offset the impacts of sediment release; review Northbrook’s sediment management activities “or lack thereof” and require maintenance plans protecting river resources; and set a Dec. 31 deadline for Northbrook to develop long-term sediment management plans for its dams in Ela, Franklin and Andrews. Such plans were required under the 2011 relicensing agreement with Duke but have not been completed.
When asked to comment on the petition’s demands, a FERC spokesperson said that “these issues are currently under review and will be addressed once the review is complete.”
“This would be a great dam to remove,” said Moore.
The discussion around dam removal is complicated, and not just because dismantling the structures is difficult and expensive. Once built, dams provide a continuous, reliable stream of renewable energy. Hydropower production doesn’t release greenhouse gases like fossil fuels, and it doesn’t pose the energy storage challenges facing solar and wind.
“Larger dams have been great for energy production, and they fill the bill for clean energy,” said Ken Brown, who as executive director of the Watershed Association of the Tuckasegee River initially raised the alarm on the Northbrook sediment dump.
However, dams also come with a significant environmental cost.
“Dams by their very nature alter the function of river ecosystems,” said Brown. “Impoundments contribute to climate change. The evaporation rate on an impoundment is incredibly high. It changes the subsegments downstream such as the alluvial plains, that kind of thing. Marshes disappear when dams hit, and they’re one of the most effective carbon sinks there is.”
Dams also cut off the upstream portion of the watershed from the downstream portion, isolating populations of aquatic species and complicating natural migrations such as spawning runs for fish.
“They cause more problems than they solve, dams,” Brown said.
When considering any potential dam removal project, said Moore, it’s important to weigh the ecological, cultural, recreational, economic and energy-related benefits against each other before making a judgment. But in the case of Ela Dam, both Moore and Brown believe that removing it is the best option.
“Part of the issue also with the Bryson dam is how little electricity it actually produces,” said Moore.
The dam has a licensed capacity of only 980 kilowatts, netting the company just over $55,000 per year. By contrast, nearby Fontana Dam produces a net 304 megawatts on an average day, more than 310 times the amount generated at Ela. Those numbers — placed alongside the reality of an aging structure in need of expensive upgrades and a sediment-covered river requiring pricey cleanup efforts — make the calculation simple, said Brown.
“In the long run, the economics of that dam being there and them (Northbrook) running that dam are far removed from their intention to make money,” he said.
Envisioning a free river
Meanwhile, the environmental and recreational benefits of a free Oconaluftee could be spectacular, advocates say. Getting rid of the dam would remove a barrier that’s kept upstream and downstream aquatic life separated for nearly a century, and provide opportunity to anglers and boaters looking for a longer continuous river stretch. They point to the revitalization of the Tuckasegee River at Dillsboro following that dam’s removal in 2010 as an example of what could happen on the Oconaluftee.
“The removal of Ela Dam would provide significant ecological benefits, including the return of a more naturalized flow and temperature regimen and sediment transport to the river system and would be of net benefit to the EBCI Oconaluftee watershed, its aquatic and terrestrial resources such as the sicklefin redhorse, the eastern hellbender and the Appalachian elktoe mussel,” reads the resolution Council passed.
MountainTrue is “all in” on supporting dam removal efforts, and the rare sicklefin redhorse is the main reason why, Moore said. MountainTrue is part of the Sicklefin Working Group aiming to restore the fish’s populations.
The large-bodied sucker fish were historically a staple food for the Cherokee people, but today they’re rare, found only in the Little Tennessee and Hiawassee river basins of North Carolina and northern Georgia. The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that about half of the species’ known population in the Tuckasegee River basin — which flows into the Little Tennessee — spawns in the Oconaluftee River below Ela Dam.
For years, tribal resource managers have been trying to establish a population above the dam on the Qualla Boundary, but to no avail. The fish would eventually flop over the impoundment, unable to return upstream. Countless other aquatic species face the same barrier.
“For 97 years, our water bodies have been disconnected from the rest of the world,” Owle told Council.
Owle — and the partners he’s working with — hopes to see that barrier break as the dam nears a century of existence.
“We (the partners) were just down there at lunch — kind of like wow, this is real,” he said Feb. 3. “We’re standing here looking at this dam, and it could be down within five years.”