Archived Outdoors

Dillsboro dam debate rages on

A plan by Duke Energy to tear down the century-old Dillsboro dam drew a crowd of opponents to a public hearing last week held by the N.C. Division of Water Quality.

The vast majority of roughly 30 speakers at the hearing (Sept. 25) argued against tearing down the dam. Some want to preserve the dam as a source of green energy. Others laud its historical, aesthetic and tourist value. Still others claim the dam’s removal could hurt water quality if done sloppily.

And many simply think the region is getting the short end of the stick, accusing Duke of offering up a dam it doesn’t want anyway as environmental and recreational mitigation for its other hydropower operations.

Meanwhile, Jackson County is fighting an uphill battle to gain control of the Dillsboro dam in lieu of Duke tearing it down. Jackson leaders want to rehabilitate the dam and operate it as a green power source for the county.

“Look at what we have — the potential to generate green power in a day and age when our country is facing an energy crisis — and we are getting ready to destroy a dam that can generate green power?” asked Brian McMahan, chairman of Jackson County commissioners.

McMahan also cited the historical and cultural value of the dam.

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“It holds great value for the people of Jackson County. Save the dam: that should be our slogan tonight,” McMahan said.

The need for alternative green energy was a popular theme for speakers who support Jackson County’s counter proposal to take control of the dam.

“What is the sense of getting rid of something that is producing power? What is the sense?” said Susan Leveille, owner of Oaks Gallery in Dillsboro.

While power from the dam may seem like a pittance to Duke, it is still valuable energy, said Tom Wilcox, a Jackson County resident.

“Power from numerous, small, dispersed sources will be important in the future of this country,” said Wilcox.


Short shrift

If the Dillsboro dam wasn’t removed, the region would be due other mitigation from Duke instead, according to Paul Nolan, the attorney representing Jackson County. Nolan wants to know what those other environmental and recreational benefits would be.

“How do we quantify those costs? What are the tradeoffs?” said Nolan.

It appears to be a concept that has resonated with the public.

“It’s about dollars and cents,” said Jason Kimenker, Sylva business owner. “Duke is using our public waterways for profit. Mitigation means they are trading something for the ability to use our public waterways.”

But what Duke is proposing is not equitable, Kimenker said.

“How they got away with trading the Dillsboro dam, I’m not quite sure. But I know why. The Dillsboro dam would cost a lot of money to fix up, and it would cost a lot of money to dredge that sediment behind it,” Kimenker said.

Bill Lyons, a Jackson County resident and former economist, claims Duke owes the region $70 million in mitigation — sacrificing the Dillsboro dam doesn’t even come close.

“Duke has posed the dam as a proxy for all of its other operations. For Duke it is a very valuable trade-up,” said Lyons.


Fans of the plan

Duke Energy had only a handful of supporters on its side at the hearing. The primary support came from paddlers, including American Whitewater, a national paddling advocacy group with significant lobbying power when it comes to river recreation. American Whitewater’s national headquarters are in Sylva.

Mark Singleton, executive director of American Whitewater and a Jackson County resident, questioned the tens of thousands of dollars Jackson County has spent fighting Duke Energy.

“I would love to see Jackson County put the resources they’ve spent fighting this process into education,” Singleton said, citing the public schools. “We would be so much further down the road.”

Another paddler, Sam Faust, also chastised Jackson County for spending public tax dollars fighting dam removal.

“I wonder how the leaders of Jackson County came to the decision that it is the will of the people that they don’t want the dam removed. I wonder what poll this was based on,” Faust said. “The overriding environmental and recreational benefits are obvious. It is now time to move on and execute the plan.”

Another ally in the room for dam removal was Mark Cantrell, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Cantrell said he expected minor short-term impacts on the river following dam removal, but that the river and its aquatic life would be better off in the long run without the dam.

“This river restoration will benefit the biological integrity of the water quality of the Tuckasegee River,” Cantrell said. It will restore nearly one-mile of the Tuck from a sluggish backwater to a free-flowing mountain river, and make for an unimpeded river from Fontana Lake to the Cullowhee dam.


Too late now

When developing a mitigation package for its hydropower operations, Duke invited local leaders, environmental agencies and special interest groups to participate in a drawn-out mediation that culminated with Duke’s proposal to remove the Dillsboro dam. Ken Kastorff, owner of Endless River Adventures, said removing the dam was a compromise arrived at over years of these negotiations between stakeholders.

“Anyone not involved with it has no idea how complicated the entire system was to come up with an agreement to benefit as many people as possible,” Kastorff said.

Bill Kane, a fisherman and past president of the N.C. Wildlife Federation, had a similar take.

“This was a long, complicated negotiation. We sat through hours and months of meetings,” Kane said. “Trade-offs are difficult.”

Singleton said opponents to dam removal are stalling the inevitable for selfish interests, rather than accepting the outcome of the years-long negotiations arrived at by the majority of players.

“Unfortunately, there are some groups that might feel disenfranchised. They are using this as their stump to get what they couldn’t get through that comprehensive settlement process,” Singleton said. “I would cry foul.”

Leveille has a far different assessment of the negotiations, however. Leveille said the negotiations were controlled by an inner circle of special interests.

“The concerns of a lot of the general public were never heard,” Leveille said. “I did not consider it a comprehensive process.”

Kimenker, a Sylva business owner, also disputed the notion that the stakeholders represented a public consensus.

“It was a loaded game from the beginning. Duke made the rules. Duke decided how those meetings would be held,” Kimenker said.

Eventually, those involved in the process who didn’t agree were kicked out, including Jackson County leaders, leaving only those who would sign on to the plan to remove the dam.

“There were many stakeholders who did not agree. Those who don’t agree with Duke have been excluded,” said Sam Duffy, a property owner along the Tuckasegee.

Jeff Lineberger, a representative of Duke Energy, disagreed with these assessments.

“The process was not contrived by Duke,” Lineberger said.

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