For more than a century, the French Broad has been a river divided.
The Craggy Dam, built in 1904 just northwest of the town of Woodfin, separates an upstream network of 3,557 river miles from a downstream network of 1,458 river miles, according to the Southeast Aquatic Resources Partnership. Those figures include the length of the French Broad itself, as well as the creeks, tributaries and streams that flow into the river.
Reconnecting those networks could have big upsides, say environmentalists, who think it’s time to consider taking the structure down.
“There could be massive social and ecological benefits from removing the Craggy Dam, which would include the potential expansion of habitat for threatened endangered species, opening up increased opportunities for recreation and making sure that we’re offering opportunities of repair for the river and the community,” says Erin McCombs, conservation director for Southern Appalachia with American Rivers.
The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit is spearheading a study, funded by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, to determine whether removing the hydroelectric dam is economically feasible. The group expects the study to be completed in about a year at a cost to be determined.
In November, President Joe Biden signed into law the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which includes $800 million for dam removal. Money from that pot would be used to remove the Craggy Dam if the project is deemed feasible.
“Because of this once-in-a-generation funding opportunity, we’re taking a look at some dams that haven’t really been feasible from a financial standpoint in the past,” McCombs says.
But officials with the county’s Metropolitan Sewerage District, which owns the dam, are taking a wait-and-see approach. “Nothing has happened on [American Rivers’] end yet, so there is nothing really to discuss,” says Tom Hartye, MSD’s general manager.
He points out that the dam provides power for the district’s wastewater treatment plant, saving customers about $300,000 to 500,000 annually and reducing the plant’s carbon footprint by roughly half.
“Their study of costs/benefits of dam removal will have to clear a high bar to even be considered,” he says.
The life aquatic
Asheville-based Gail Lazaras, associate director of conservation for American Rivers, says removing the 13-foot high low-head dam could improve the area’s ecological health. “It can be huge for aquatic connectivity, habitat, movement of species, resilience of species.”
The Appalachian elktoe, a freshwater mussel that has been on the federal endangered species list since 1994, has returned to the French Broad River in recent years after being absent for decades. Because mussels are sensitive to water pollution, wildlife experts say the return indicates the water quality of the river is improving. Dam removal might help bolster that success by allowing freer movement of fish, which serve as hosts for mussel larvae.
“There is that tight connection between mussels and fish,” McCombs says. “When you remove a dam, you can restore connectivity that can benefit both. We may be able to support this population that’s doing better than some of the other populations in the region.”
Dam removal also could open the whole section of the river to recreation, says Hartwell Carson, French Broad riverkeeper for Asheville-based nonprofit MountainTrue.
“Downstream of the dam there’s Ledges Whitewater River Park, but there’s a really nice section of the river in between the dam and Ledges that’s extremely difficult to paddle,” he says. “Portaging the dam is really the only way to do it. So it would be awesome if you could, all of a sudden, link up Asheville and Marshall via the river.”
McCombs says dam removal would fit in well with the town of Woodfin’s Greenway and Blueway project, which will include 5 new miles of greenway along the river and Beaverdam Creek and provide new river access sites.
“We’re really excited to see if some of the momentum around that project could extend to include this dam removal project as well,” she says.
Low-head dams such as Craggy, adds Lazaras, can create turbulent currents that are difficult for those recreating on the water to escape. In one recent North Carolina example, three inner-tubers died on the Dan River in Rockingham County last year when they were swept over a dam.
While there has never been a safety incident associated with the Craggy Dam, she continues, it is never a bad idea to get out in front of a potential safety hazard.
Despite all the potential benefits of removing the dam, American Rivers understands the MSD’s concerns.
“It creates hydropower, so part of the feasibility study is to make that right and see if we can’t look at opportunities or options for generating equivalent amounts of electricity in other, greener ways,” Lazaras says.
She continues that her group is grateful the sewer district has been willing to provide information for the study and to consider the findings.
“We have this aspirational idea that wouldn’t it be nice, if it turned out to be economically feasible, to remove the dam,” Lazaras says. “But there’s going to be a lot of questions we need to answer first.”
For the Craggy Dam removal to go forward, the district and its legal counsel would have to sign off.
After that, McCombs says, support and design engineering for the project would likely be funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, one of five federal agencies with access to the dam removal money in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
If clean energy alternatives are part of the removal plan, outside experts would need to be brought in, she says.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the lead federal agency on dam removal projects and would need to issue a permit. On the state level, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality would have to sign off.
American Rivers also has to get approval from the state Historic Preservation Office and other agencies before embarking on the project.
The Craggy Dam is not the only dam in Western North Carolina that ultimately could be removed using the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act money. American Rivers is working with the state Wildlife Resources Commission and MountainTrue to identify other feasible projects in the region.
And McCombs encourages residents who have nonoperational dams on their property to contact American Rivers. “We can have a conversation about whether we can provide funding and technical assistance to reconnect waterways and remove a public safety hazard in the form of a dam that’s no longer serving a purpose.”