Kelly Custer has been a lifelong lover of the outdoors, from playing sports as a kid to mountaineering adventures in far-flung regions of Bolivia and Peru as an adult. Now, the Jackson County businessman is hoping to get others exploring Western North Carolina’s outdoor opportunities — specifically, those afforded by the stretch of the Tuckasegee River flowing through Dillsboro.
Last year, Custer formed the company Western North Carolina Outdoor Development with an eye to bid on a piece of property that’s been publicly owned since 2013, when Duke Energy turned it over to Dillsboro following removal of the Dillsboro Dam. Dillsboro sold it to Jackson County for $350,000 in 2014, and ever since the county’s been looking for a way to turn the undeveloped tract into a win for economic development.
The quiet, early morning streets of Dillsboro seemed still asleep as the town board ambled in. They arrived one by one, easing in with casual conversation about health and grandchildren and how delicious Town Clerk Debbie Coffey’s homemade cheese Danish tasted.
But there was more on the table for discussion than bull and breakfast. Dillsboro’s leaders assembled for their specially called meeting to decide if the town should sell property recently handed over from Duke Energy.
“The county wants to make a river park with that property,” Dillsboro Mayor Mike Fitzgerald had explained the day before.
Over the summer, Duke turned over roughly 17 acres of property bordering the Tuckaseigee River near downtown Dillsboro. The property is located where the energy company previously operated a hydroelectric dam, and the handoff is tied to federally mandated relicensing requirements that require public utilities to give back to areas from which they profit.
Jackson County has long eyed the riverfront property. There are plans calling for a riverside park already on the shelf. During re-licensing discussions in 2009 the county commissioned Equinox Design Inc. to prepare a conceptual design for a park on the north and south sides of the river.
With Duke’s handoff of the property to Dillsboro this summer, the time has come for Jackson to make its bid.
“The mayor of Dillsboro contacted me in mid-September to advise that the town board had taken possession of the property and offered to sell the property to the county at market value,” Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten said.
That’s a move the county had anticipated. Several months ago Jackson had the property appraised with just such an opportunity in mind.
On Sept. 15, commissioners took up the issue during a closed session. They approved a potential purchase price — the appraised value of $350,000 — and decided to make a formal offer.
“I have a contract right here,” Fitzgerald told his aldermen during their special meeting.
The mayor explained that, if the offer was accepted, there were no encumbrances on the funds. He laid out the county’s intentions, read a letter from Wooten — “obviously we view this property as a strategic piece of property for recreation purposes” — and called for a vote well before the cheese Danish was finished off.
The whole thing took about five minutes. Alderman David Gates agreed the decision was a no-brainer.
“Well, yeah, because we can’t afford to keep it, we can’t afford to do anything with it,” he said.
The board adjourned and dove back into friendly conversation. They hung around a bit longer and laughed about what the money might be spent on.
“Debbie’s going to get a new oven,” Fitzgerald joked following the board’s unanimous vote to accept the county’s $350,000 offer.
“We’re gonna have a gourmet kitchen,” Coffey laughed.
While both Jackson and Dillsboro have given nods of approval to the purchase, this is not quite a done deal yet. Commissioners will formally consider the matter during their Oct. 6 regular meeting; approval looks like a safe assumption.
“They had authorized an offer in executive session and Dillsboro accepted the offer so it is a done deal,” Wooten explained.
Once commissioners have given their formal approval, the county will develop a scope of work and then plans to reengage Equinox Design. The 2009 designs — which incorporate Duke’s dam into a river park — must be tweaked. Wooten expects the whole process to be moving forward by the end of October.
This is all good news to Barry Kennan. The Jackson resident — and former World Freestyle Kayak Champion and member of the U.S. National Slalom team — has been pushing for a whitewater park in Dillsboro for a while.
“Sounds like it’s going to happen,” Kennon said after the town accepted the county’s offer to purchase the Duke property for the purpose of a park.
Kennon has requested repeatedly that Dillsboro consider putting in a whitewater park. He contends the stretch of river rifling through town is perfect for the venture, calling it “the textbook spot to put a whitewater park.”
“The gradient’s already there,” Kennon said. “It’s a tailor-made spot.”
Plus, the kayak champion said, Dillsboro is located in a prime area insofar as participants in paddlesports are concerned.
“That’s basically like the paddling crossroads of the Southeast,” Kennon explained. “It’s right between Atlanta, Chattanooga, Knoxville and Asheville.”
The paddler points to parks in Colorado, where the concept of whitewater parks is nothing new.
“The Colorado parks, they’ve got so many of them,” Kennon said. “Like every little river town, they’ll have a park there.”
Those parks, he said, have long attracted not only paddlers but also people watching paddlers.
“These whitewater parks, they attract spectators. They’ll be like 10 spectators for every paddler in the water,” Kennon said. “There’s millions and millions of dollars being spent in Colorado at whitewater parks.”
Kennon won the World Freestyle Kayak competition in 2001 in Spain. Each year the event is held in a different location. Last year, it was held on Swain County’s Nantahala River.
Kennon entertains notions of the event returning to the region again someday. This time to Jackson County.
“We could have that event in Dillsboro,” the paddler said.
Dillsboro officials would like nothing more than to see visitors flock to the river. For years, the town benefited daily from visitors transported to its doorstep by the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, which now offers only limited trips to Dillsboro. Now, the quiet and quaint town boasts a burgeoning art community, but it could still use that extra something to really kick things into gear again.
Following the Friday morning vote over cheese Danish, Alderman Gates explained why he felt the sale worked for the town. Besides the money in the bank, he’s hoping the river park benefits Dillsboro exponentially.
“More tourism, bottom line,” Gates said, “for the county and for Dillsboro.”
For years, Jackson County fought the removal of Duke Energy’s dam on the Tuckasegee River in Dillsboro. County officials argued that the dam had recreational benefits, historical meaning and green energy potential.
In 2009, as part of its effort to quash the removal of the dam, the county argued in court that the structure should be left in place and incorporated into a river park it had planned. Duke eventually won its fight with the county, dismantling the dam in 2010.
After a few years of environmental restoration, the power company handed off about 17 acres of riverfront property to the town of Dillsboro this summer as part of its federally mandated relicensing requirements. The town has chosen to sell the property to Jackson County, which still has intentions to place a park at the site, only without the dam.
The planned Dillsboro riverpark — or Dillsboro Heritage Park, as it was dubbed in 2009 — will feature river access points, boat ramps, walking paths and nature trails. It will have parking lots and playgrounds, pavilions and picnic tables.
The county’s plans call for a North River Park on one side of the river, with a South River Park on the other side. Since the time that the county initially had designs drawn up, Duke Energy has removed its dam and also built a river access point on the north side of the property. Those old plans will need to be dusted off and tweaked.
“I think the general concept will be the same,” said Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten.
Officials have set aside $100,000 — a portion of the amount. Duke paid Jackson in connection with its removal of the dam — to pay for the project.
Wooten said the county intends to reengage the plan’s author, Equinox Design, to update the plans.
“I think that they are ready to start as soon as we give them the go ahead,” said Wooten.
County commissioners are expected to give their formal approval to the sale during their Oct. 6 meeting. By the end of the month, they may be ready to consider a possible scope of work for Equinox.
A decade-long saga in deciding the fate of Duke Energy’s former dam near Dillsboro is drawing to a close as the company prepares to hand the site and surrounding land over to local officials.
In the two years since the Dillsboro Dam was torn down, the Tuckasegee River has become home to a growing number of aquatic species, from mussels to insects to fish, as natural river habitat has been restored.
“We’re certainly glad that it’s gone,” U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist Mark Cantrell said last week. “The response was immediate.”
Duke Energy demolished the 12-foot high, 310-foot long dam in February 2010 as environmental mitigation for several other larger dams it operates in the region. Jackson County battled for seven years to keep the dam. It wanted to make the dam a centerpiece of a new public park and promenade, complete with walking paths, benches, fishing areas and river access. Plus, the county argued the dam was historically important to the community.
Duke, however, succeeded in removing the small and ancient dam as compensation for using the Tuck in its lucrative hydropower operations, which net the utility millions annually.
Duke’s contention that the river would be better off environmentally without the Dillsboro dam does seem to have come true, according to Cantrell.
“What we’re seeing now is the rebirth of that section of river and a confirmation of the decision to remove it. There’s no question about it — if you are an angler, boater, fish or bug, the Tuckasegee River is better with the Dillsboro Dam removed,” he said.
Jackson County trout fisherman Craig Green said that he supported the removal of the dam and has been happy to see the river return to its natural free-flowing state.
“Recovery is a strange word — it wasn’t that things were bad, but clearly the dam removal has enhanced the flow for the fish to move back and forth,” said Green, who is a past president of the Watershed Association of the Tuckasegee River.
Cantrell described the physical shape of the former river as coming back in “a really impressive” manner.
The dam had turned a nearly mile-long stretch of the river behind it into a slow-moving backwater. The backwater was 310 feet wide — the same width as the dam — but the natural river bed is just 50 or so feet wide.
To Mark Singleton, a paddler in Sylva, the removal of the dam “was like unwrapping a big old Christmas present.” He couldn’t wait to see what the river’s natural contour would be like once it returned to its true form.
With the dam gone, boaters discovered a natural rock ledge below the surface where the dam used to be. The ledge doesn’t deter experienced kayakers, he said, but it is a bit too challenging for beginning boaters to use, so most bypass that section.
“It doesn’t get paddled a lot,” said Singleton, the director of American Whitewater, a national paddling and river advocacy group based in Sylva.
As part of the mitigation, Duke Energy was required to build a public river access just upstream from the former dam site. On one side of the river, there is a parking area, restrooms and a boat put-in. On the other side is a more primitive parking lot used mainly by fishermen.
James Jackson, owner of Tuckasegee Outfitters, said the removal of the dam and the subsequent growth in visitors coming to raft has been measureable. He estimated yearly business growth of 10 to 15 percent in terms of visitation.
“I think it is one of the larger tourist attractions in Jackson County,” Jackson said of rafting on the Tuckasegee.
By removing Dillsboro Dam, river species that had vacated the mile-long backwater behind the dam have now returned.
“One of a dam’s great impacts on a river is changing the area behind it from a free-flowing river to a reservoir, typically unsuitable habitat for most native stream species,” Cantrell said.
Cantrell said the dam acted as a barrier for a number of fish species, some that needed to go upriver to spawn. The sluggish water previously held behind the dam also acted as a barrier to certain fish, he said.
Twice a year in 2008, 2010 and 2011, biologists such as Cantrell monitored fish and other aquatic life, providing a before-and-after picture of how dam removal affected the river, especially at the site of the former backwater.
A species considered foremost during dam removal discussions was the Appalachian elktoe, a federally endangered mussel found only in Western North Carolina and a sliver of East Tennessee. The elktoe did not exist in the pooled-up backwater behind the dam, but monitoring has now found more than 140 elktoe mussels in the stretch, a sign the previously bisected population will reconnect, strengthening its long-term viability.
Before removal, the reservoir area was home to a diminished variety of macroinvertebrates. These insects, crayfish, and other animals without backbones form much of the life in a stream ecosystem. Just more than a year after the removal, macroinvertebrate diversity had increased, on par with sites upstream and downstream of the reservoir site. Among macroinvertebrates, biologists often pay special attention to mayflies, caddisflies, and stoneflies, which tend to be sensitive to water quality and are indicators of stream health.
Following removal, the diversity of these three insect groups increased dramatically in the former reservoir area — from a monitoring low of only two types in October 2008 to a high of 40 in May 2011. Using macroinvertebrate numbers and diversity as a measure of stream health, their return lifted this stretch of river from a “poor” quality rating in 2008 to a “good” ranking in May 2011.
“It all seems to be right on track,” Cantrell said.
As expected, fish diversity has responded somewhat more slowly to the dam removal, though biologists have noted the fish community is shifting to one typical of a Western North Carolina river, and the number of fish species dependent on flowing water is increasing. Additionally, in May 2011, biologists found an olive darter, a species of conservation concern for state and federal biologists, upstream of the dam site for the first time. The discovery could mean the fish took advantage of the dam’s removal to expand its range into upstream habitat.
Biologists also made an encouraging discovery downstream of the dam site. For several days in 2008 and 2009, biologists scoured the river downstream of the dam searching for mussels. They uncovered 1,137 Appalachian elktoes, which were all systematically tagged and moved upstream, away from potential harm from the demolition.
“Regarding the health and well-being of the Tuckasegee River, removing Dillsboro Dam has been a success,” said Hugh Barwick, Duke Energy biologist who managed the dam removal and biological monitoring. “The removal was a positive step in improving aquatic life in the Tuckasegee River in the vicinity of the former dam and reservoir.”
Duke Energy has received a new 30-year permit to operate its five hydroelectric dams in Jackson County, which could pave the way for new economic and recreational opportunities along the Tuckasegee River.
Kayaking for several days a year on the upper reaches, for instance, with the power company agreeing to open up Lake Glenville Dam for water releases into the old streambed. New hiking on a future trail below Lake Glenville Dam down to the Paradise Falls area. Nine new river-access areas — including a portage — around Cullowhee Dam near Western Carolina University.
But don’t get too excited. The work could take years to complete, easily up to a decade or more.
“There’s tremendous work involved with the implementation of the license,” said Mark Singleton, a member of the stakeholder groups and executive director of American Whitewater, a national nonprofit headquartered in Sylva that promotes river conservation, access and safety.
Duke District Manager Fred Alexander also indicated the work isn’t over.
“We’re pleased to be at this stage, not the end, but the beginning of the end,” he said.
Duke must get new permits from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission every 30 or so years to operate the dams. The process, known as relicensing, spells out what mitigation Duke must conduct to offset the environmental impacts of the hydro network.
Debate raged for nearly 10 years over how much Duke owes Jackson County in exchange for harnessing the Tuckasegee River with numerous dams. And Ken Westmoreland, the former county manager who spearheaded the county’s long fight against Duke, said Jackson has gotten the short end of the stick.
“We felt Jackson County’s citizens were being shortchanged in the long run,” Westmoreland said. “We knew in comparable relicensing across the country, other jurisdictions received substantially more than Duke has offered, which is basically a pittance.”
Westmoreland led the county into a protracted and costly legal fight in hopes of exacting more from Duke. Since the centerpiece of Duke’s mitigation was tearing down the Dillsboro dam, that was what the fight centered on, but saving the dam wasn’t the county’s primary objective, Westmoreland said.
“It was trying to find a method to get Duke to ante up considerably more in funds over the long haul for multiple purposes — recreation, stream-bank restoration and other conservation endeavors the county was interested in,” Westmoreland said.
Duke prevailed in the end when Jackson gave up on its battle, and within weeks of that decision the power company took out the dam. Restoring free flowing river will help threatened aquatic species, improve river habitat and set the stage for a river shore park.
Enhanced recreation opportunities along the Tuckasegee could help the county’s economic big picture, too.
“Quality recreation opportunities drive economic opportunities,” Singleton said.
For instance, additional put-ins will cater more to the increasing driftboat fishing traffic being seen on sections of the Tuckasegee.
Re-licensing for dams on the Nantahala River area — these were for the Tuckasegee River watershed — are expected soon.
By Quintin Ellison & Becky Johnson
• 1964: A court case results in hydro projects in the U.S. being placed under the jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
• 1980-1981: The original 25-year licenses on the hydroelectric projects on the Tuckasegee and Nantahala rivers are issued to Nantahala Power and Light.
• 1988: Duke Energy purchases Nantahala Power and Light from Alcoa, a 1,729-square-mile service area, with 14 dams on five rivers serving 11 hydroelectric generating plants.
• 1999: Duke starts a public involvement process to develop a mitigation package as part of the next relicensing process. Two stakeholder teams were formed for the Tuckasegee and Nantahala, comprised of environmentalists, paddlers, fishermen and local government leaders.
• 2003: Stakeholders agreed, although not unanimously, to a mitigation package. The centerpiece is removing the Dillsboro Dam. Jackson County is among the parties who dissent. Macon County, the town of Franklin, and Dillsboro express dissatisfaction as well.
• 2004: Jackson County begins a legal fight against Duke, appealing various aspects of the relicensing at every step of the way.
• 2007: FERC sides with Duke in saying that removing the Dillsboro Dam, built in 1927, will suffice as mitigation by restoring a section of free-flowing river, reconnecting habitat and providing river recreation.
• January 2010: Jackson County concedes it has lost the battle against Duke.
• February 2010: The dam is removed, clearing the way for new licenses to be approved and promised mitigation to get under way.
• May 2011: FERC formally approves re-licensing agreements for Duke’s hydro projects on the Tuckasegee River.
During the past three weeks, tomato farmers in the Thomas Valley near Whittier have been unable at times to run drip irrigation equipment to counter drought conditions because sediment in the Tuckasegee River was clogging their pumps.
“With the 90-degree days, it’s really critical that these farms get drip irrigation,” said William Shelton, who runs a vegetable farm in Thomas Valley. “That river’s our lifeblood when it comes to these crops. Particularly during drought.”
Tomatoes are 85 percent water. When the plants are overstressed, they will actually take water back from the fruit, ruining the crop.
Kent Cochran, who farms 20 acres of tomatoes just up the road from Shelton, doesn’t understand how the river can be full of mud when there is no rain.
“When it rains, there’s going to be mud for a day or two but that’s not really an issue,” Cochran said. “We’ve been needing the water bad these past three weeks, and sometimes we go over there and it’s clear, and other days it’s mud.”
Robbie Shelton, the Jackson County erosion control officer, has been equally perplexed. Shelton’s job includes monitoring construction sites that could dump sediment into the river.
Last week, Robbie Shelton traveled up and down the river in search of an answer to the farmers’ questions. The focus of his investigation was Duke Energy’s efforts to restore the streambed above and below the former site of the Dillsboro Dam.
Shelton took pictures during the first week of July that showed the river was clear above the dam and increasingly turbid below.
“The Tuck upstream of the dam is clear. It’s downstream that it’s muddy,” Shelton said.
Shelton said during the drought, the river was increasingly muddy as it moved downstream towards Barker’s Creek.
“The closer you get to Thomas Valley the dingier it gets,” Shelton said. “It’s a progression. I’ve tried to find a source, and there’s not been one that’s been found.”
Nate Darnell, who works an 8-acre tomato field in Thomas Valley as part of his North Face Farm, has tried to bring some levity to an otherwise worrisome situation.
“As a farmer, I have to deal with a lot of runoff regulations, and it strikes me as ironic that the upstream runoff from development is causing us the problems now,” Darnell said
The restoration of the stream bank at the former Dillsboro Dam site is monitored daily by personnel from Duke Energy in accordance with the Clean Water Act and overseen by the N.C. Division of Water Quality.
Duke has been monitoring turbidity below its work zone. It has not exceeded state standards. In fact it has been well below them, according to Duke spokesperson Jason Walls.
“The turbidity and the sediment in the river are coming in from other places,” Walls said. “We feel confident that our operations aren’t increasing the levels of sediment.”
If the dam site isn’t causing the sediment, then what is?
That’s the question Cochran and Darnell are asking. Darnell has observed that on dry days the river gets turbid in the middle of the day.
“It was coming on down here about midday, anywhere between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.,” Darnell said. “I really can’t give you a good reason, but I could speculate.”
So far this summer, Darnell estimates he has lost between one and three tomatoes from each of his plants. By the end of the season, those losses could add up to $25,000 in lost crops.
Darnell said farmers are constantly dealing with loss, whether from drought or insects or crows, but having the cause be the river that is the valley’s lifeblood is mystifying.
“The river’s not always going to be clear, but we really shouldn’t have to fight it during drought,” Darnell said.
“As academics, we’re pretty good at using rigorous methods to find things out,” said Chris Cooper, the institute’s director. “We’re not as good at showing our results.”
Cooper and his colleague, Gibbs Knotts, were interested in partnering with a media company to help disseminate the results of a poll measuring Jackson County political opinions and in turn instigate a larger conversation. They hatched the idea during the debate over tearing down the Dillsboro Dam. Because there were so many strong opinions on the issue, it was hard to get a feel for the sentiment of the majority.
“Most people like people who like them,” Cooper said. “Consequently they hang around people who think like them. The idea was to get a representative sample, so people could have some idea what others were really thinking about the issues.”
Smoky Mountain News publisher, Scott McLeod, saw the project as an opportunity to explore a partnership that could get to the crux of what is on readers’ minds.
“This is what good journalism and good newspapers are about,” McLeod said “We want to provide our readers with information about this region they can’t find anywhere else and present it in a way that’s interesting and useful. These polls and the subsequent stories we do will fulfill that mission.”
By combining accurate polling data and a platform for discussion, the first poll in the project is designed to create a baseline for Jackson County voters to discuss issues in the run-up to the November election. The project is called “Creating a Regional Policy Dialogue.”
“Anytime you can get people to discuss their views on government and on elected leaders, there’s a chance it will lead to better decision making and better leadership,” McLeod said. “Maybe a frank dialogue in the media about leadership and politics — one based on actual poll results from mountain voters — will contribute some solutions to some of our problems.”
Cooper contracted Public Policy Polling in Raleigh to conduct a random sample survey of Jackson County registered voters. The polling firm has had great results with its relatively low-cost phone survey method. SurveyUSA’s report cards rated Public Policy Polling the most accurate pollster for South Carolina, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Indiana and Oregon during the 2008 election cycle.
The Jackson County poll, which was administered through a computerized phone call, asked 11 questions. In the end, just less than 600 respondents from all parts of the county offered their views on questions that asked what they thought of county and federal government; whether alcohol sales should be allowed outside incorporated areas; and how they felt about Congressman Heath Shuler, Governor Bev Perdue, the TEA Party and their local school system. It also measured political persuasions and collected demographic data.
Some of the results were surprising, like the fact that 95 percent of the respondents had an opinion about alcohol sales outside of Sylva and Dillsboro.
Cooper is quick to point out what the poll results — which canvassed registered voters only — can and can’t show.
“We can generalize about voters in Jackson County, but we can’t generalize about the people in a broad sense,” Cooper said.
Voters are, in general, more educated, more liberal and older than the public at large. They are also the people most likely to engage in the political process.
“The downside is we’re not getting the opinion of a whole group who by definition are disenfranchised and disconnected from the political process,” Cooper said.
Knotts estimates that between 20 and 30 percent of Jackson residents aren’t registered to vote.
The poll functioned with a plus or minus 4 percent margin of error. Cooper said he only recognized one peculiarity in the results: more than 61 percent said they graduated from college, a larger percentage than normal for the voting public.
“We over-represented educated people, but it’s not because we called more, it’s because more of them answered the call,” Cooper said.
In the end, the survey provides a starting point for the discussion of what’s really on the mind of Jackson County’s voters. Past public opinion surveys in Western North Carolina have focused on the region so broadly that voters in Asheville or Boone have been lumped in with those from Cashiers and Whittier.
The newest poll hopes to lend badly needed specificity the conversation.
“We were very interested to see how it came out to, and I feel really good about the results,” Cooper said.
Gauging public opinion can be a tricky proposition, but for the elected officials who run Jackson County, it can also provide a glimpse at what matters to the people who elect them.
County Commissioner Tom Massie is up for reelection in November, and he likes the idea of the poll.
“I think we genuinely need to know where there are issues of concern in the public, and people ought to participate more in their government at all levels,” Massie said.
Vicki Greene, director of the Southwestern Planning Commission, has conducted numerous polls in Western North Carolina aimed at getting information on how people are employed. Greene, who grew up in Sylva and Dillsboro, said it could be hard to get good, accurate information from people through an automated phone call.
“My initial reaction is it’s a waste of time, because I’d be real surprised if you can get somebody to stay on the line for seven minutes,” Greene said.
The poll called voters on the list six times before moving on to another name. The short duration of the poll and its touch-key response system limits the complexity of the questions, but it greatly enhances the chance that people will respond.
Greene acknowledged how important good data can be in informing the larger policy discussions that shape the region.
“Assuming the questions are asked in a neutral format, the results of the polls should be beneficial to elected officials in their decision making capacities,” Greene said. “When you do a random survey, you are getting the voices of folks that don’t often participate in the discussion.”
For Knotts, who helped design the list of questions, the poll is a starting place.
“We see this as a way to put some numbers out there and use them as a starting point for a regional dialogue,” Knotts said.
At a moment in history when the economy is still mired and approval ratings of government at all levels are low around the country, the Jackson County poll is a chance to find out why voters are so frustrated and what can bring them back to the table.
For Cooper and Knotts, gathering data is the best place to start.
“The goal is to get the word out there, get out of the academic silo and communicate data and empirical results to the people who make decisions,” Cooper said.
For Smoky Mountain News publisher Scott McLeod, the polling partnership is the first step in creating a broader regional dialogue around issues.
“I can’t recall there ever having been scientific polling data from citizens in the counties west of Asheville,” McLeod said. “If we can continue this project for a year and do a half dozen or so polls, we’ll have some great information about our region that no one else has ever made the effort to gather.”
The first day of demolition on the Dillsboro Dam attracted hundreds of spectators last Wednesday.
A roadside pull-off overlooking the Tuckasegee afforded a bird’s eye view of the machinery chipping away at the dam below. Some vying for a spot arrived early and loitered all morning, while others double parked, jumped out and snapped a photo with their cell phone, then went on their way.
Many watching from the roadside were clearly disappointed with what they were witnessing.
“I don’t see no point in it,” said Jake Dills. “It wasn’t hurting nothing to let it stay like it was.”
Like so many who grew up in Jackson County, fishing downstream of the dam was a big part of Dills’ childhood.
The wide waters below the dam are known for exceptionally large fish. The dam blocked fish from swimming any further upstream, making it fertile ground for fishing.
It was also a place fishermen could call their own, free from rafters and kayakers. A stone’s throw further downstream is a major put-in for commercial rafting companies and a favorite launching point for paddlers. Once the dam is gone, Duke Energy has pledged to add more put-ins upstream of Dillsboro. Fishermen fear an encroachment by paddlers along a stretch they once had to themselves.
“It will mess everything up for the local people and fishermen,” said Dills. “I hate to see it go.”
Oscar Woodard, 66, said taking out the dam will ruin the fishing.
“There’s some big ones in there,” Woodard as he watched from the roadside. “It’s a sad time, but it’s progress, I guess.”
Some even lament the loss of the slow-moving backwater behind the dam. John Hall, 60, liked to kneeboard and water ski on the pseudo-lake behind the dam. He also fished in the deep waters behind the dam, and even trapped muskrat around it.
“I don’t like it one bit,” Hall said, as he watched equipment hammer a hole in the dam. “I can’t understand why they’re doing it. The local people won’t benefit.”
But some onlookers were more positive.
Two friends, Lauren Cress and Casey Smith, like floating down the river on rafts and inner tubes. With the dam gone, they will have more river to play on.
“I think it is a good day,” said Smith, 28. But Smith said he understands why a lot of the “old-timers” don’t feel that way.
A few onlookers, despite their personal convictions in support of keeping the dam, said it was about time that the county commissioners stopped fighting a losing battle against Duke at the expense of taxpayers and let demolition proceed.
The river through Dillsboro will be far narrower with the dam gone. The dam was 310 feet long, as was the river above and below it. The natural river will be just 50 feet wide. Many watching the demolition during those early hours had a hard time visualizing what such a drastically smaller river would look like.
“I am anxious to see what it looks like when they get done,” said Brandon Ashe, 33.
When Duke first broached the idea of tearing down the Dillsboro dam eight years ago, Mark Singleton thought he would see this day come much sooner than it did.
A champion of dam removal both for the ecological and recreation benefits, Singleton had a front row seat last week on the banks of the Tuckasegee when a hoe ram struck its first blow, taking a tiny but symbolic chip from the top of the dam.
“It’s a historic day for the river. It’s also nationally significant,” said Singleton, a Jackson County resident and paddler. “Dams like this don’t come down very often.”
Singleton hardly slept the night before, wondering what the river would look like in its natural state. Before the dam came down, you could barely make out giant rock formations lurking beneath the surface. The dam was also rumored to sit on top of a rock ledge. That would all be exposed as the water dropped, revealing what Singleton hoped would be fodder for a paddlers playground.
“What kind of cool features are waiting under there?” Singleton said. “It is like Christmas. You are unwrapping a present.”
Singleton also wondered whether the large rock formations would create shallow tide pools, something his own children like to explore.
“All of that is underneath here. We just haven’t seen it in 100 years,” Singleton said.
Singleton said the former dam site will be a construction zone for a few months yet, but by summer, he hopes to be paddling down the new stretch of river. A big spike among paddlers could be witnessed the first year, but Dillsboro will likely find itself as a new hub for recreational paddlers even after the novelty wears off, said Singleton, the executive director of American Whitewater, a national paddling advocacy group.
“It is a great thing. I am glad to see the river is free-flowing,” said James Jackson, a local paddler and business owner. “I think it will be a great addition to the county.”
Meanwhile, environmental benefits of dam demolition were also cheered by biologists who had lobbied for dam removal.
For starters, nearly a mile of slow moving backwater behind the dam will be restored to a natural mountain river. Also, with the dam gone, fish will once again have free range to migrate up and downstream, expanding their reach, according to Mark Cantrell, biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Aquatic species have been “bumping their head on this dam for years,” Cantrell said.
One such species is the endangered Appalachian elktoe mussel. The eggs of elktoe mussles hitchhike on fish, which unwittingly play host to the developing larvae in their gills. The baby mussels eventually jump ship and wherever they land becomes their new home. Dams that block fish consequently block the distribution of the elktoe mussels.
Dam removal will allow previously isolated elktoe populations to unite and in turn build back up the gene pool, Cantrell said.
Dam removal will also help the sicklefin redhorse, an extremely rare fish that Cantrell would like to see placed on the list of endangered species. It is found on only five rivers in the world, all of them here in the mountains.
Like salmon, but on a smaller scale, the sicklefin redhorse swim upstream to spawn. But the Dillsboro Dam blocked them from doing so. Removing the dam will it allow access to new spawning grounds.
The sicklefin redhorse traditionally returns to where it hatched to spawn. Since the fish currently aren’t found upstream of the dam, it could take generations for them to discover the new territory if left to their own devices.
But Fish and Wildlife biologist have lent a helping hand by rearing sicklefin redhorse in captivity and releasing newly hatched fry upstream of the dam every year, imprinting the fish to return to the same spot one day when laying eggs of their own.
The sicklefin redhorse don’t spawn until the fifth year of their life, but the biologists are now in the fifth year of the releases — with a total of about 5,000 released over that time. Within a year, the first of those imprinted fish should reproduce naturally on sections of the Tuck upstream of Dillsboro, giving rise to a new population of the threatened sicklefin.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife has conducted species assessments above and below the dam, and will watch eagerly to see if the numbers and diversity increase in the years following dam removal.
“This is what it is all about,” Cantrell said. “The intent of dam removal is to see these environmental benefits.”
While the river ecology will improve over the long run with the dam down, biologists were concerned about immediate impacts of chunks of the dam and backlogged sediment washing downstream during the demolition process. While Duke was required to dredge some of the sediment prior to demolition, a lot still remained.
“As the water levels drop, we will see some of that sediment that was previously sequestered behind the dam be redistributed downstream,” said Cantrell, whose agency is monitoring ecological issues in the Tuck before, during and after dam demolition.
A large cloth net was strung across the river to strain out debris coming down, but it wasn’t a catch-all.
So water monitoring stations were set up above and below the dam to measure sediment during demolition. If sediment levels got too high, the rate of demolition could be slowed. Another tactic would be releasing more water from Duke’s other dams higher up the river to dilute the ratio of sediment in the water being flushed downstream, Cantrell said.
Safety precautions were also in place, including a lifeline strung across the river should a worker fall overboard, and a motorized lifeboat moored at the river bank to go after someone.
As onlookers watched the water level drop last week, they braced themselves for the ugly scene that would be revealed: a giant, barren pit of mud and muck stretching along the riverbanks.
Duke is supposed to do steambank restoration to kick-start revegetation, and it’s something both the community and biologists hope Duke will do well.
Duke is working on a massive landscape plan to revegetate the banks, according to Hugh Barwock, the project manager for dam removal and a senior environmental resource manager for Duke out of Charlotte.
TJ Walker, owner of the Dillsboro Inn, is keeping his fingers crossed that Duke does a good job with streambank restoration. For now, the view from his inn on the banks of the Tuck is that of a fresh mud flat. But Walker says the project manager has promised it won’t look that way for long.
Walker initially fought dam removal, but backed down a couple of years ago.
“My sense of abandonment is replaced with a sense of hope,” Walker said last week.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has created a Web site dedicated to removal, including demolition photo and facts of environmental benefits at www.fws.gov/asheville/htmls/projectreview/DillsboroDam.html
The seven-year battle between Jackson County commissioners and Duke Energy has come to a close.
After losing a critical court battle this month, Jackson County commissioners voted 4 to 1 to give up their legal fight against Duke Energy last week.
“It is not prudent for Jackson County to move forward any further,” County Commissioner Chairman Brian McMahan said of the commissioner’s decision.
Recently, the fight has appeared nothing more than a tug-of-war over the Dillsboro Dam: Duke wants to tear it down and the county wanted to save it.
But the origin of the conflict is philosophical: how much does Duke owe Jackson County in exchange for harnessing the Tuckasegee River with numerous dams? Duke proposed removing one of those dams — the small and ancient Dillsboro dam — as compensation for using the Tuck in its lucrative hydropower operations, which net the utility millions annually.
Duke contends the river will be better off environmentally without the Dillsboro dam and it will open a new stretch of free-flowing river to paddlers and rafters.
Therein lay the crux of the disagreement, however. The county didn’t want the dam torn down, so it should hardly count as compensation, said Commissioner Joe Cowan, who voted against giving up the fight.
“It’s a bum deal,” Cowan said. “Duke ought to be ashamed of itself as a large corporation to attempt to pull such a stunt on the intelligent people of this county. I resent the hell out of it.”
Cowan gave a strongly worded speech directed at Duke at the meeting Tuesday.
“Why did they want to take the dam down? Because they didn’t want to give the county anything,” Cowan said.
Cowan said taking down the dam was a grand scheme on Duke’s part, a ruse intended at duping local people into believing Duke was doing them a favor by taking down the dam. But Cowan said Duke was only looking out for its own monetary interests by offloading a small, aging dam instead of real mitigation.
“Had it not been for greed, there would have been no seven years of bickering with Duke Power,” Cowan said. “Duke had many opportunities to step up and do the right thing as a good neighbor would do. Duke hasn’t done that. They have resisted it.”
The other four commissioners who voted to call it quits clearly did not revel in their decision.
“Seven years has been a long time and looking back on what has transpired, I still feel as strong today about my position on saving the dam as I did then,” said McMahan. “I grew up there learning to fish. It holds a sentimental place. It is going to move into our history now. It is going to become a part of our past.”
Commissioner Tom Massie, who has been urging the rest of the board to throw in the towel for over a year now, said he hopes the county and Duke can mend fences and work together in the future.
“It is unfortunate it has gotten to this point in terms of the legal costs and wrangling that has gone on,” Massie said. “I am glad it is over with.”
It’s one statement Duke agreed with.
“We at Duke are, as one of the commissioners remarked, glad it is over with,” said Fred Alexander, Nantahala district manager of Duke Energy. “About 10 more miles of free flowing Tuckaseigee River and improved aquatic habitat should benefit fishermen, boaters, and the critters in the water.”
Several members of the public took a turn the podium to thank the county commissioners for putting up a valiant fight.
“I came tonight to applaud you — applaud you for giving us leadership in your efforts to retain the Dillsboro Dam, as a historical site, as a viable source of sustainable energy and as land to be used by all the residents of Jackson County,” said Susan Leveille, an artist with a gallery in Dillsboro. “You have strived well to lead us toward the moral high ground of not just thinking of ourselves today but for making wise decisions with regard to the people, the land and the resources.”
Supporters said Jackson did the right thing by standing up to Duke, even if the cards were stacked against them.
“I also want to commend this board for doing everything they could to save the dam and the powerhouse,” said Tim Parris, a resident of Dillsboro. “I do realize you were up against a fight with a corporate giant in Duke Power — not only that but you had to fight the special interest groups like American Whitewater. The landscape is changing at Dillsboro, but I can tell you it is not what the people of Dillsboro want.”
But Sam Fowlkes, a paddler who is pleased the dam will finally come down, chastised commissioners for wasting so much money on an ill-conceived strategy.
“I am sure lawyers who get billable hours will always have more options for you, but it kind of looks like game over,” Fowlkes said prior to the board’s vote to end their legal fight.
Fowlkes said the big winner isn’t Duke, but rather Jackson County’s attorney throughout the protracted standoff.
“Win or lose, it is more money for him,” Fowlkes said. “The losers? The taxpayers. I am one of them.”
The county does not have a final tally of its legal bill, but the most recent total was between $200,000 and $250,000.
Commissioner William Shelton congratulated Duke on its win.
“I grew up on the Tuckasegee River and have watched it about every day in my life,” Shelton said. “This has been a gut wrenching experience for me. There has not been one easy thing about it.”
The county will likely not have another opportunity to extract mitigation from Duke Energy for 30 years, when the hydropower license comes up for renewal again.
Demolition of the powerhouse has been completed and dam work will start in a couple of weeks.
“It was like a knife going through my heart,” said Starlotte Deitz, a Dillsboro resident and Duke opponent, who watched the demolition last week. “It is an icon that can never be replaced. You can’t put a money value on that.”