Cheoah River Flows Again

Cheoah River by Abby Rose Cantrell

When the Tallassee Power Company (or TAPOCO) closed the gates on the Santeetlah Dam in 1928, North Carolina’s Cheoah River vanished. For nearly 75 years, the riverbed was almost completely dry. At the Santeetlah dam, the Cheoah’s entire flow disappeared into a steel pipe that cut though a mountain to a powerhouse on the banks of the Little Tennessee River.

The Cheoah’s story might have ended there if it were not for a requirement that all privately-operated hydropower dams must obtain operating licenses from the federal government. These licenses must be renewed and approved by federal and state officials every 30 to 50 years, providing an opportunity to balance power production with conservation and recreation interests.

In 1998, Alcoa Power Generating, Inc. (which had purchased the Santeetlah Dam along with three others that operated together as the TAPOCO project in the Little Tennessee watershed) began the process of renewing a federal license, working with a dynamic group of stakeholders in a series of more than 100 meetings. In March 2004, Alcoa signed a landmark agreement with American Rivers, Tennessee Clean Water Network, The Nature Conservancy, National Parks Conservation Association, Sierra Club, local communities and property owners, the states of Tennessee and North Carolina, the National Park Service, USFWS, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the US Forest Service.

All of these stakeholders agreed to support a new 40-year operating license for Alcoa’s TAPOCO project. In exchange, Alcoa agreed to changes that would protect 10,000 acres of pristine watershed lands adjacent to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, enhance four endangered fish species, put water back into two previously dry stretches of river, and provide more than $12 million for conservation projects and enhanced recreational facilities.

The agreement restored flow to two river reaches from which dams had diverted water, including the Cheoah. Restoring natural flow patterns to this stretch of river, has already improved its diverse native aquatic life, helping species like the endangered Appalachian Elktoe mussel to make a comeback. The new flows also allow for improved fishing and world-class whitewater boating.

Alcoa also agreed to create a pair of trust funds: the Tallassee Watershed Trust Fund and a North Carolina Fund. Together, these funds will provide more than $6 million over 40 years to address watershed problems and finance restoration and preservation efforts in the Little Tennessee watershed.

These funds have been used on innovative efforts to offset environmental and social impacts of the TAPOCO project. The funds are overseen by a Board of Directors composed of state and federal agencies as well as nonprofit organizations like American Rivers.  In 2012, the hydropower project transitioned ownership again to become a project of the Brookfield Smoky Mountain Hydropower.