article photo 1

Cheoah River to Flow This Year!

Posted: 01/27/2005
By: Kevin Colburn

On January 25th, after 5 years of intense negotiations between AW and other stakeholders, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued a new 40 year license for the dam on North Carolina's Cheoah River and 3 dams on the Little Tennessee River.  The new license will protect and restore the beautiful and diverse natural resources of the area, and will provide world class paddling opportunities on the 9 mile long class IV Cheoah River.  While subject to appeal, the license is essentially the final word on this project.  In short, WE WON. 


  • There will be a flexible and dynamic flow regime restored to the Cheoah River that will restore ecological and recreational functions  beginning in September of this year.  Specifically a continuous flow ranging from 40 to 100 cfs will be released into the river as well as 16-18 days of boatable flows annually that will range from 850 to 1000 cfs.
  • Those 16-18 boatable releases will be adaptively managed for the life of the License by the resource agencies and/or by the FERC.  This will allow beneficial changes in flow frequency, timing, magnitude, and duration.
  • There will be public access areas constructed at the top and bottom of the Cheoah by the US Forest Service, and several enhanced roadside pull-offs in between constructed by the power company.
  • Trees that have grown up as a result of the dewatering of the Cheoah River channel will be removed from the river, and coarse sediment will be added.  These actions will enhance ecological recovery as well as recreational boating.
  • After five years of biological monitoring, the resource agencies can request additional recreational releases - and/or FERC can require them.  Ecological monitoring will be paid for by the power company - not the public as was requested in the settlement agreement.
  • These additional releases will be provided FREE OF CHARGE.  Yes, we beat the potentially precedent setting TVA-Type proposal in the settlement agreement that would have forced the public to pay a corporation to let a river flow.
  • 10,000+ acres of ecologically precious private lands will be protected including buffers on Yellow Creek and other tributaries.  These lands ecologically connect two massive protected areas and protect water quality and aquatic habitat.
  • Other ecological enhancements are required such as significant contributions to resource protection and enhancement funds, relocation and restoration of species of concern, and significant ecological monitoring.
  • Other recreational enhancements are required such as canoe portage trails around each dam, new reservoir access areas, improved public camping facilities, continued funding of the USGS gage, and a new hiking trail along the Cheoah River.


            To accomplish these landmark mitigation measures American Whitewater worked closely with other paddling organizations, environmental organizations, and state and federal agencies.  American Whitewater staff and volunteers collaborated on a whitewater flow study, wrote a detailed economics study, attended roughly 100 days of negotiation meetings, and drafted several hundred pages of comments and proposals. 


            After nearly four years of successful advocacy for ecological and recreational enhancements, the paddling interests were forced to abandon the settlement process when an unprecedented clause was added to the settlement agreement that would have required the public to pay for recreational releases.  While very proud of the settlement agreement and our contributions to it, we simply could not agree to something that we felt was illegal and unethical.  For the remaining year of the relicensing we worked hard -and successfully- to have the "Payment for Water" clause excluded from the license, while defending and supporting the rest of the settlement.    


            This massive effort could not have been possible without the support of our individual and foundation donors, members, volunteers, and paddling partner organizations.


            We would like to thank our paddling partners who showed tenacity and solidarity in our collective efforts to secure a new license for these dams that is fair, ecologically responsible, and recreationally beneficial.  Specifically, we would like to thank the following people and their organizations:


  •         Rod Baird and Chris Bell - Western Carolina Paddlers
  •        Bob Wiggins - Carolina Canoe Club
  •         Bob Hathcock - Nantahala Outdoor Center
  •         Ken Kastorff and Tricia Stewart - Endless River Adventures
  •         John Miller and Rob Paden - Outdoor Adventure Rafting
  •         Jack Wise and Carolyn Allison - Wildwater Unlimited
  •         Andy McKinnon - Pigeon River Outdoors
  •         Chuck Estes - East Tennessee Whitewater Club
  •         And many others!


            It is certainly a time for celebration, yet the future holds many challenges.  There is a chance that the power company will challenge the new license which will require strong opposition from the paddling community.  American Whitewater also will need to be actively involved in the adaptive management process for years to come.  We would like to ask that the paddling community help us celebrate this landmark success by joining American Whitewater, by paddling the Cheoah as much as possible, and by responsibly enjoying your time in beautiful Graham County, North Carolina.  In September the Cheoah River will begin flowing consistently for the first time in over half a century, and we'll see you there!

Associated Projects

Cheoah River (NC)

AW and regional paddling clubs spent 5 years relicensing the dam on the Cheoah and scored a huge environmental and recreational victory.

Cheoah River (NC)

AW and regional paddling clubs spent 5 years relicensing the dam on the Cheoah and scored a huge environmental and recreational victory.

Join AW and support river stewardship nationwide!