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Federal grant lets NC dam removal project move forward

The Ela Dam, also known as the Bryson Hydroelectric Project, is on the Oconaluftee River in Swain County, North Carolina.
David Boraks
The Ela Dam, also known as the Bryson Hydroelectric Project, is on the Oconaluftee River in Swain County, North Carolina.

A proposal to remove a century-old hydroelectric dam in the North Carolina mountains is a step closer to happening thanks to a federal grant announced this week.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has approved $4 million to help pay for the demolition of the Ela Dam and restoration of the Oconaluftee River in Swain County.

The project has been proposed by a coalition that includes the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the nonprofit American Rivers and the local Mainspring Conservation Trust. The group still needs to raise at least $6 million from other private, state and federal sources.

The project will restore 549 miles of watershed, protect the habitats of endangered aquatic species, and help the Cherokees reconnect to the river which flows through their lands, called the Qualla Boundary.

“What started as a pipe dream will now be a reality,” Joey Owle, secretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, said in a press release. "Removing the Ela dam will truly be a monumental success story in reconnecting the tribe to a life-giving river that has been a part of our community for thousands of years."

The dam generates 1 megawatt of electricity. That was significant when it was built to help electrify the mountainous region, but now it’s a tiny amount compared to the 2,000-megawatt power plants on the grid.

Erin McCombs, southeast conservation director for American Rivers, said the project will have many benefits. “Removing Ela dam will restore the river to its natural state, allowing for increased biodiversity, habitat renewal and improved water quality. It’s also a huge win for environmental justice in that the land will be returned to its original stewards — the Cherokees.”

McCombs told WFAE in March that as climate change alters habitats, the project would give species more room to move and thrive. It also will remove the hydroelectric dam's lake, a source of methane from decomposition.

Design for the project has already begun and removal could start as early as next year.

Duke Energy owned the dam from 1988 until 2019, and then it was sold to Northbrook Carolina Hydro along with four other dams. Northbrook plans to donate the lake to the partners.

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David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.
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