From CPP: Shoring up Lake Tomahawk dam with ARPA funds

Walkers at Lake Tomahawk
Pedestrians cross the footbridge over the dam spillway at Black Mountain's Lake Tomahawk April 7. Photo by Colby Rabon, courtesy of Carolina Public Press

By Shelby Harris, originally published by Carolina Public Press. Carolina Public Press is an independent, in-depth and investigative nonprofit news service for North Carolina.

Another small town is doing big things with federal COVID-19 relief money.

Following suit with nearby Western North Carolina municipalities of similar sizes, Black Mountain is using its American Rescue Plan Act money to make much-needed infrastructure repairs.

Specifically, the town is planning to use more than $300,000 of its ARPA funds to pay for improvements to the Lake Tomahawk dam, Black Mountain Town Manager Josh Harrold said.

Framed with a fishing pier, playground and tennis courts, Lake Tomahawk is a popular visitor attraction in Black Mountain, which is in eastern Buncombe County. Town officials, however, have been cognizant of impending issues with the 8.9-acre lake — specifically its 90-year-old earthen dam.

“It doesn’t meet today’s standards, of course,” Harrold said about the dam, which the U.S. Civilian Conservation Corps built in the 1930s.

“The engineering standards have changed, so now we’ve got to come in and do a little bit of work on the dam to reinforce its face.”

Necessary repairs to aging infrastructure

While the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality deemed the Lake Tomahawk dam “high-risk” because of its potential to flood downstream through the Tomahawk Branch, Harrold said the structure doesn’t spark any immediate concern for public safety.

Even so, the DEQ advised Black Mountain to hire engineers to study what repairs the dam needs. In summer 2021, the town hired Buncombe-based engineering firm S&ME to inspect the dam and plan the project.

“The engineers we hired said we really needed to shore it up and do some work,” Mayor Larry Harris said. “It’s not an emergency, but it does have to be done.”

While S&ME is still in the planning phases of Lake Tomahawk’s dam repairs, the improvements will likely consist of installing drains to address water seepage and adding more soil and rock materials to reinforce the earthen dam, according to an S&ME initial report.

Harrold said the town hopes to have construction underway by the end of summer.

Lake Tomahawk
An earthen dam built in the 1930s creates Black Mountain’s Lake Tomahawk in eastern Buncombe County. Photo by Colby Rabon, courtesy of Carolina Public Press

Since the dam was artificially made, it will likely continue to require improvements, but the repairs funded by ARPA should keep the scenic park open to visitors for several years.

“Doing this work will essentially prolong the life of this dam for many years to come,” Harrold said. “I think it’s really going to look nicer than it does when (the repairs) are done.”

Using ARPA for dam repairs

Improving infrastructure is one of the acceptable uses for ARPA money, according to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, which distributed the funds to towns based on population.

Signed into law in spring 2021, the American Rescue Plan Act reserved billions of dollars to be used to help the nation recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Beginning in May 2021, the U.S. Treasury Department began disbursing money to individual governments, which are tasked with choosing which projects or programs to fund.

Ducks at Lake Tomahawk
Lake Tomahawk, in the town of Black Mountain in eastern Buncombe County, was created when the Civilian Conservation Corps built an earthen dam in the 1930s. The lake provides a habitat for wildlife, including these ducks near the dam spillway April 7. Photo by Colby Rabon, courtesy of Carolina Public Press

Black Mountain chose to use its ARPA money for Lake Tomahawk dam repairs shortly after receiving the first half of its roughly $2.6 million in August 2021. Harris said the decision to use the funds in part for dam improvements was unanimous.

While WNC’s larger cities and counties have opted to use the funds to expand broadband and fund local nonprofits, several smaller municipalities have latched onto ARPA as a source to fund large infrastructure projects.

The city of Brevard plans to use its one-time ARPA funds to enhance its stormwater system and expand waterlines, and Lake Lure will use its federal allocation to start work on a new sewer system. 

Black Mountain’s only other plan for its ARPA money is to replace a major waterline that is more than 50 years old. By improving the aged line, Harrold said, the town will be able to add more connecting waterlines as the city grows.

Plans for the waterline are in even earlier phases than the dam repairs. The Black Mountain Town Council is still in the process of hiring an engineering firm to tackle the waterline project. Per U.S. Treasury guidelines, all ARPA money must be allocated by December 2024 and spent by December 2026.

Black Mountain’s remaining $1.3 million ARPA funding will be distributed this summer.

The town is still tossing around ideas for how to use the rest of the federal money and will look for community input as town officials plan further. Both Harris and Harrold said improving recreational facilities, such as tennis and pickleball courts, are being considered.


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