On this day in WNC history: After years of concerned citizens input and activism, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) dropped its plans to construct fourteen dams on the French Broad River watershed in 1972.
In the early decades of the 1900s, many dams were built in WNC, including the massive Fontana project, generating power, aiding flood control, and often contributing to tourism, but displacing local residents and altering the region’s ecology in many ways. In 1966, after several years of studies, the TVA proposed the construction of several dams along the upper French Broad that would have inundated over 18,000 acres, often of farmland, and may have displaced over 600 families. The TVA proposed the dams to mitigate flooding but also to create water recreation opportunities. They would have especially affected the Mills River area, creating a tailing lake with an average size of 660 acres. Dams were also planned on French Broad tributaries in Transylvania, Henderson, and Madison counties, impounding the Swannanoa, Mills, Laurel, and several other rivers. Before the plans were even formally announced, however, a small group of citizens came together to form the Upper French Broad Defense Association (UFBDA) in hopes of stopping the project. This group grew in size to over 450 members and raised both civic and and environmental opposition to the dam project before the first public input session in 1971.
While the TVA plan was initially met with support from local county commissioners, the North Carolina governor, and many local citizens, opposition grew, as did projected costs. The federal government appropriated $125 million for the project, which was set to begin construction in July, 1973. After continued efforts by the UFBDA to demonstrate downsides to the project, and the election of three anti-TVA Buncombe County commissioners, the TVA finally concluded in 1972, “adequate local support and commitment no longer exists.” The UFBDA stated to their members, “It is reassuring to find that a determined group of concerned citizens can participate effectively within our system. We were able to influence both public opinion and government policy. There can be little doubt that this experience has sharpened our sensitivity to the opportunities indeed the obligations of citizenship.”