American Rivers Announces Ela Dam Removal Coalition Secured $4M from U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to Commence River Restoration Project in North Carolina

May 1, 2023

Dam removal and land back project is the second largest grant beneficiary in the country from the recently-passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Washington, DC – Today, American Rivers announced that the Ela Dam Removal Coalition secured $4M in funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) as an initial payment to commence deconstruction of the Ela dam in Western North Carolina. This is the second largest grant secured in the country for such a restoration project as part of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Once Ela dam is removed, 549 miles of the Oconaluftee River watershed will be restored, allowing for a free-flowing river that will expand the habitat for endangered and other aquatic species.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, (EBCI), American Rivers, and Mainspring Conservation Trust submitted the funding request. Mainspring will receive the funding award to progress the project.

“Healthy rivers are essential to all life, and removing a dam is the fastest way to restore a river’s health. We appreciate this initial investment by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in  the restoration of the Oconaluftee River. We look forward to working with them to leverage this investment to fully realize this project to revitalize fish and wildlife habitat and restore vital cultural connections. We are grateful to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians for their leadership, and for the partnership of Mainspring Conservation Trust,” said Tom Kiernan, American Rivers President and CEO.  

Bisecting the Qualla Boundary, home to the EBCI, the Oconaluftee River has long been a part of the Indigenous people’s lives and culture. For nearly 100 years, the Ela dam has blocked native species migration and cut off a once vital fishery for the Cherokees. After the dam is removed the land will be returned to the Cherokees.

“The Ela dam project is one of the most exciting as it has all the bells and whistles – it will benefit a huge river system, the Cherokee people and the wider community,” said Southeast Conservation Director Erin McCombs. “Removing Ela dam will restore the river to its natural state, allowing for increased biodiversity, habitat renewal and improved water quality. It’s also a huge win for environmental justice in that the land will be returned to its original stewards – the Cherokees.”

Led by EBCI, the Ela dam project consists of a large coalition of partners who along with American Rivers made this project possible, including Mainspring Conservation Trust, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, USFWS, Army Corps of Engineers, Southern Environmental Law Center, Water and Power Law Group PC, Northbrook Carolina Hydro II, Environmental Protection Agency, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, American Whitewater, and many others.

“What started as a pipe dream will now be a reality,” said Joey Owle, Secretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. “Removing the Ela dam will truly be a monumental success story in reconnecting the tribe to a life-giving river that has been a part of our community for thousands of years. I’m beyond elated that the Ela dam removal project is now moving forward full steam ahead and am grateful to all our coalition partners for their hard work in getting this closer to the finish line.”

In August 2022, American Rivers secured initial funding of $800,000 from the NC Wildlife Resources Commission for design, engineering, permitting, project management and communications. Design work is already underway and the new USFWS grant will help to move the project forward as early as 2024, with a goal of completion by the fall of 2025.

The Oconaluftee River is home to 11 sensitive and rare aquatic species, some of which are only found in a few streams and rivers in western North Carolina, including the federally endangered Appalachian elktoe freshwater mussel, the Sicklefin Redhorse (NC Threatened), and Eastern Hellbender (NC Special Concern).  

About American Rivers 

American Rivers is championing a national effort to protect and restore all rivers, from remote mountain streams to urban waterways. Healthy rivers provide people and nature with clean, abundant water and natural habitat. For 50 years, American Rivers staff, supporters, and partners have shared a common belief: Life Depends on Rivers. For more information, please visit

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