Dillsboro Dam important part of Jackson’s heritage, economy

By Susan Leveille

Editor’s note: This letter, which contains some updates, was sent by Susan Leveille to the Maggie Salas, secretary of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, in 2004. She asked that we publish it as a guest column.

Dear Secretary Salas:

As a lifelong resident of Jackson County and one who has always lived within a few thousand yards of the Tuckasegee River, I would like to state some concerns with the proposals made by Duke Power as they seek to receive the exclusive license to use this river for monetary profit derived from the production of electric power.

The river system belongs to the people. Duke Power is asking to have the use of this natural resource to achieve its goals. I believe that there need to be independent studies that show the true consequences of changes Duke proposes to this resource.

Although I have many concerns about our whole water system — its preservation, quality, accessibility by all citizens, and its use by Duke Power — my comments here will focus on Duke’s proposal removing the Dillsboro Dam. There has yet to be any attention paid to the possible social, economic and historic impact of the removal of this dam. The stakeholders did not address these concerns and Duke has not addressed them in any fashion that indicates an understanding of these issues.

Contrary to statements made by Duke, the dam at Dillsboro is historically more significant than the dam at Glenville or any other dam in the county or region. The history of electric power offered to the public in Jackson County started in Dillsboro. About 1909, one of this county’s most prominent citizens and Dillsboro resident C.J. Harris established a hydroelectric site on the Tuckasegee within sight of his home (The Dillsboro and Sylva Electric Light Company). The original wood dam was replaced in 1927 by the current structure and has been producing power ever since, except for a brief period following the disastrous flood of 1940. C.J. Harris’ original home still overlooks the dam.

Much of the history of this county is associated with his life and the contributions he made to its social and economic growth. This dam’s just one of the lasting structures that attest to these contributions.

This history greatly affects Dillsboro today. A small town with a population of about 200 people, our only industry is tourism. I have owned and personally operated a business here in Dillsboro for 30 years. I know first-hand the need for our town to keep its history alive and well. We, as merchants and residents, have worked hard to preserve the historic character of our town and to strive to keep it from the disease of “tacky” that befalls so many tourist towns.

Founded in 1889, Dillsboro went through a period of decline after rail service diminished all over the country. It has proved to be a significant benefit that many buildings from the town’s early days are still here, allowing for their restoration and preservation. Thankfully, those old buildings were not all torn down. Historic tourism is recognized by local, state and federal governments as making significant contributions to the economy of our country. The Dillsboro Dam is not only a significant part of the history of this town and this county and thus important to our tourism, but it has aesthetic value significant to our tourism. Not every town seeks to be a Disney World or even a Nantahala Outdoor Center. Besides, we already have that just in the next county.

Which brings us to the Town of Dillsboro. As a member of the stakeholder process, they came late to the process, as did all of the incorporated towns below the Glenville dam. The Town of Dilisboro signed the Tuckasegee Cooperative Stakeholders Agreement with major reservations. One of the main concerns was the removal of the Dillsboro Dam. Little has been made of their concerns in the press, just the fact that it signed on. This has been troubling to some and baffling to those in the community that are in the dark as to the various levels of acceptance the stakeholders could choose in the signing process. Duke only mentions that stakeholders signed.

Likewise, the proposed amount of compensation from Duke Power to the Town of Dillsboro for the loss of this historic and aesthetic attribute is baffling even to those familiar with the process. The mitigation should deal with this project and this project alone. The dam removal should not be used for mitigation for other aspects of the greater relicensing project.

We have finally learned that a forest is not just trees. What impact will removing the dam have on the natural environment of the river, including wildlife, shorelines, aesthetic beauty and overall health of the river? How will all of this change affect the property values along this portion of the river if the aesthetic beauty and the river’s health are impaired? Studies have not been done.

This is at least a 30-year license that Duke is seeking. The loss of the dam will exceed that time span. Duke wishes to rid itself of a small portion of this Tuckasegee River system that it obviously deems unimportant. The Dillsboro Dam is very important to those of us who live and earn our livelihood near the dam. It is important to the tourism that brings us that livelihood. In fact, some entity decided that the dam was important enough for the North Carolina Department of Transportation to build a scenic overlook just above the dam in the early 1980’s using some federal money for construction.

I have two beautiful photos of the Dillsboro Dam on the wall of my business. Rarely a day goes by during our busy seasons that visitors don’t see those photos and ask about the dam. When told it may be torn down, they inevitably ask why. I am hard-pressed to supply them with a satisfactory answer. The reasons I am aware of for Duke’s decision to remove the dam make no sense to these visitors:

• Not profitable enough — How much could Duke lose on such a small dam in the grand scheme of its corporate bottom line?

• Open the river to water sports — Isn’t there sufficient river devoted to this in the area already?

• Taking out the dam was a bargaining chip for other aspects of the bigger relicensing package — But how do they justify removing the dam in Dillsboro to achieve other goals even in other counties? How are they allowed to do that?

Again, there do not seem to be any reasonable answers.

And the question I continue to ask is why we, in this time of higher fuel costs and grave concerns about global warming, choose to destroy a renewable energy source that is in place, able to be operated, and probably able to produce more power that it already does? To whom does this make sense?

(Susan Leveille owns Oaks Gallery in Dillsboro.)

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