On October 3, 2021, a slug of sediment was released from Ela Dam, which impounds the Oconaluftee River in western North Carolina, smothering the streambed downstream. This action unleashed a wave of momentum for removing the nearly 100-year-old dam and reconnecting 549 miles of streams in the Oconaluftee River watershed with the Tuckasegee River.

Ela Dam on the Oconaluftee River, Swain County, North Carolina.


Ela Dam, also known as Bryson Dam, is on the Oconaluftee River in Swain County, NC, just over half a mile upstream from its confluence with the Tuckasegee River (Location coordinates: 35.4456, -83.3749). Nearly all land upstream of the dam is either part of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Qualla Boundary or Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There isn’t another dam in the watershed – Ela Dam is the only thing keeping the Oconaluftee River from being a completely free-flowing river.

Ela Dam is the centerpiece of what is officially known as the Bryson Hydroelectric Project, consisting of the dam, powerhouse, Ela Reservoir, the tailrace to a point 400 feet downstream of the dam, switchyard, and the land around the reservoir up to a contour elevation of 1,843.41 feet msl – totaling about 65 acres. The project boundary abuts the Qualla Boundary for approximately 1.5 miles. 

Oconaluftee River watershed upstream of Ela Dam. Credit: Mark Endries

History of the dam

In 1924, the town of Bryson City began building Ela Dam to provide local power in an era when hydropower was being widely developed to bring electricity to rural areas of Appalachia. The dam came online in 1925, with the capacity to produce 0.98 megawatts. In 1942 it was acquired by Nantahala Power & Light, a subsidiary of ALCOA created in 1929 to provide community power to parts of Cherokee, Graham, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties; operating parallel to ALCOA’s hydropower operations that provided electricity for their aluminum smelting efforts.

In 1988, Nantahala Power & Light was purchased from ALCOA by Duke Energy, although the Nantahala Power & Light name was not retired until 2000. In 2019 Duke announced it was selling the Bryson project, and four other dams, to Northbrook Energy, which today operates the dam under subsidiary Northbrook Carolina Hydro II.

Ela Dam under construction. Photo by Kelly Bennett. Courtesy of Western Carolina University Hunter Library.

The sediment release

On September 3, 2021, Northbrook discovered a breech in one of the dam’s gate structures. Warning signs were put into place and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which regulates private hydropower dam operations, was notified. On September 20, Northbrook contacted the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to request approval to draw down the reservoir to better evaluate the situation and develop potential solutions. On October 3, the drawdown began, with Northbrook inspecting the structure structure
Something temporarily or permanently constructed, built, or placed; and constructed of natural or manufactured parts including, but not limited to, a building, shed, cabin, porch, bridge, walkway, stair steps, sign, landing, platform, dock, rack, fence, telecommunication device, antennae, fish cleaning table, satellite dish/mount, or well head.

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on October 4, then refilling the reservoir. On October 4, the N.C. Division of Water Resources received a complaint about sediment downstream of the dam, bringing awareness of the release to state and federal natural resource agencies. It would later be discovered that electronic switches controlling the gates malfunctioned and opened the gates creating a rapid drawdown. The velocity of the water leaving the impoundment mobilized large amounts of sediment which was carried downstream and deposited across the streambed in depths up to four feet.

In the wake of the drawdown and resulting sediment release, the notion of removing the aging dam to ensure this would never happen again arose in a conversation between U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission biologists. They subsequently reached out to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, one of the most significant stakeholders in the stewardship of the Oconaluftee River, about the possibility of removing the dam.

Significance of removal


Removal would eliminate the only physical barrier preventing the Oconaluftee River from flowing freely - physically and symbolically reconnecting the Cherokee with ancestral waters downstream. Dam removal could also increase potential for development of river-based recreation, including increased fishing access, increased tubing and paddling, and snorkeling.

Learn more about the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the sicklefin redhorse, a fish found in the Oconaluftee River, www.fws.gov/story/fish-wears-feather.

Historical Cherokee fish weir spanning the Tuckasegee River


The waters below Ela dam are home to several species of conservation importance and removing the dam would enable these species to expand their range upstream, recolonizing their historic range – advancing their conservation and helping provide the Oconaluftee River with the assemblage of life it held a century ago.

Species of importance to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:

  • The federally endangered Appalachian elktoe mussel.
  • The eastern hellbender, an animal under consideration for Endangered Species Act protection.
  • The sicklefin redhorse, a fish once considered for Endangered Species Act protection and currently the subject of concerted conservation efforts, in the form of a Conservation Agreement, on the part of several organizations, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, Georgia Department of Natural Resources,  the Tennessee Valley Authority, and Duke Energy.

Beyond those three species, the Oconaluftee River downstream of Ela Dam also supports seven state-listed species:

  • Smoky dace (NC special concern)
  • Olive darter (NC special concern)
  • Wounded darter (NC special concern),
  • Little Tennessee crayfish (NC special concern)
  • Highlander shiner (NC significantly rare)
  • Smallmouth redhorse (NC significantly rare)
  • Tuckasegee stream crayfish (significantly rare)
Sicklefin redhorse

Climate change

Changes in regional climate will likely warm stream water in the Southern Appalachians, with negative implications for aquatic life adapted to cool mountain rivers. Climate change also brings more variable precipitation, creating situations, including both droughts and floods, where warming streams experience more erratic flows. Removing the dam eliminates the barrier preventing downstream animals from swimming upstream to find refuge in cooler waters, not only in the Oconaluftee River itself, but in the myriad tributary streams across the Qualla Boundary and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Also, impoundments typically have greater evaporation than streams, with impoundments in the Southern Appalachians potentially losing hundreds of thousands of gallons of water per acre of impoundment per year – an issue that will only be exacerbated by climate change climate change
Climate change includes both global warming driven by human-induced emissions of greenhouse gases and the resulting large-scale shifts in weather patterns. Though there have been previous periods of climatic change, since the mid-20th century humans have had an unprecedented impact on Earth's climate system and caused change on a global scale.

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. Eliminating the shallow reservoir behind Ela Dam means decreasing the amount of water from the river system that is lost to evaporation.

Asheville Field Office biologist Jason Mays helps install a net across the bottom end of the Oconaluftee River in western North Carolina. The net will help biologists corral sicklefin redhorse so they can collect data on sicklefin movement in the river.

Organizations involved

  • Mainspring Conservation Trust
  • N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
  • Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians
  • N.C. Wildlife Federation
  • U.S. Forest Service
  • Northbrook Energy
  • American Rivers
  • U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
  • N.C. Division of Water Resources
  • N.C. Land and Water Conservation Fund
  • Swain County Soil and Water Conservation District
  • Great Smoky Mountain National Park
  • Environmental Protection Agency
  • Southern Environmental Law Center

Key points

Although all the key stakeholders are working together to remove the dam, the legal and administrative situation surrounding the private operation of hydropower dams makes removal a complicated endeavor. Activity is concurrently underway on several fronts to move forward.

Removal plan

Before the dam can be removed, an explicit engineering plan must be developed to guide removal and site restoration to ensure the protection of human health, safety, and property while minimizing negative impacts to the stream. This planning looks at a multitude of activities associated with dam removal including concrete and sediment removal and disposal, as well as stream channel design, restoration, and stream bank stabilization.  Thanks to funding from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission this was begun and mostly developed by Asheville, N.C.-based engineering firm Anchor QEA. The plan will be completed by McMillen, Inc. which will be the contractor for removal. Having McMillen complete the plan ensures it dovetails with their removal strategy.


In November 2022, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission provided $800,000 for developing the detailed removal plan. Actual removal is estimated to cost approximately $16 million. This includes dam removal, sediment management (removal of approximately 150,000 - 200,000 cubic yards), restoration and bank stabilization, and construction management activities. This estimate is based on similar dam removal projects and the knowledge and experience of resource agencies and American Rivers. Funding has come from myriad sources, including the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and N.C. Land and Water Conservation Fund. 

Dam ownership

Although the dam is currently owned by Northbrook, to move forward with removal they would relinquish ownership. Local conservation organization Mainspring Conservation Trust agreed to assume ownership of the dam from Northbrook when: 1) funding for full removal is secured, and 2) the dam is no longer subject to a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission hydropower license. These steps prevent the non-profit from being liable for the dam and its operation should it not be removed. 


The dam was constructed to generate 0.98 MW. Today, this is a small amount of electricity added to the grid, especially in comparison to the vast adverse impacts that the dam causes to the Oconaluftee River. There have been discussions of a 10-acre solar farm to offset the loss of electricity should it be required.  A 10-acre solar farm would produce this amount of electricity and would have much lower environmental impacts.



  • September 3 - Northbrook discovers a breach in one of the dam’s gate structures, and notifies the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
  • September 30 – Northbrook contacts the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, requesting permission to draw down the reservoir behind the dam to better evaluate the situation and identify a possible remedy.
  • October 3 - Northbrook begins reservoir drawdown
  • October 4 – N.C. Division of Water Resources receives a complaint about the sediment release from the dam.
  • October 4 – Northbrook notifies the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, N.C. Department of Environmental Quality of the drawdown
  • October 5 - Staff from the N.C. Division of Water Resources inspect the site, finding sediment 18-24 inches deep across the river below the dam.
  • December 6 - 9 - N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service begin discussions about possibility of dam removal and planning ideas for removal process. They begin establishing a plan to approach EBCI, American Rivers, and Northbrook with ideas and options for moving toward dam removal.
  • December 13 – N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hold first meeting with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to discuss ideas and plans for potential dam removal.
  • December 17 – The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians reaches out to Northbrook to raise the question of removal


  • February 3– Tribal Council votes to support the tribal Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources in forming a coalition including American Rivers, Mainspring Conservation Trust, Service, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to pursue dam removal. Regular calls between the coalition and Northbrook ensue.
  • May 16 – Tribal Timber and Natural Resources Committee votes to support a resolution for the tribe to acquire Ela Dam and associated property, with intent to remove the dam.
  • June 2- Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians tribal council votes down resolution for the tribe to purchase the dam contingent on federal grant funding and having a third party hold the dam during the removal process and to enter an MOU with American Rivers to pursue removal.
  • November - Mainspring Conservation Trust and Northbrook enter into an Asset Purchase Option and Sale Agreement, under which Mainspring Conservation Trust would acquire the dam and associated property if funding is available for removal and the license to operate the hydropower facility is surrendered by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Agreement ends in April, 2023.
  • February - Mainspring receives grant from the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina to assist with their due diligence.
  • November - N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission grants American Rivers $800,000 for planning.


  • February - Request for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service funding under the National Fish Passage program submitted.
  • February - N.C. Land and Water Conservation Fund awards Mainspring Conservation Trust $2 million.
  • April - U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announces $4 million in funding for the project
  • September - Northbrook and Mainspring Conservation Trust sign Purchase Option Agree enabling transfer of the dam from Northbrook to Mainspring Conservation Trust.
  • November - Northbrook submits application for license surrender to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
  • November - Anchor QEA complete initial 90% design and removal plan.
  • December - Mainspring Conservation Trust and American Rivers submit additional $4 million funding request to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


  • February - Federal Energy Regulatory Commission formally accepts the application for the license surrender. Thirty-day comment period opens.
  • March - U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service applies to intervene in the license surrender proceedings in support of license surrender. 
  • March - Mainspring Conservation Trust chooses McMillen, Inc. as the contractor for removal.

Next steps

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission decision on the application to surrender the hydropower license and accompanying power generation disconnect plan is forthcoming. Upon approval of the license surrender, Mainspring Conservation Trust will assume ownership of the dam, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will begin working on the cultural and natural resource permits needed for removal.

Ela Dam near completion. Photo by Kelly Bennett. Courtesy of Western Carolina University Hunter Library.
Ela Dam, Oconaluftee River, Swain County, North Carolina. Credit: Gary Peeples


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