Does Alcoa Own the Land Under Its Yadkin River Dams, Lakes?

By Julie Rose, WFAE

An environmental watchdog is asking the North Carolina Department of Administration to dig through property archives and determine the rightful owner of the Yadkin River. It's a question that goes to the heart of the heated dispute between Alcoa and opponents who say the company doesn't deserve to continue operating dams on the river.

Alcoa has a helpful little "Did you know?" box on it's webpage with the following factoid:

"Alcoa owns nearly 36,000 acres of land along the Yadkin River, including the property under the water and pays $1 million in local property taxes each year." But that's not a fact at all, according to the Yadkin Riverkeeper's Dean Naujoks.
 
"It's pretty concerning when you have private corporations trying to rewrite history and start claiming ownership over what rightfully belongs to the public," says Naujoks.
 
The truth is Naujoks may not be right either and this gets into an old and murky area of the law.
 
We do know that the public has a right to benefit from the river, dating back to the 1700s when the U.S. broke from Great Britain and deeds to all navigable rivers went to the people. Early government documents show the Yadkin River fit that category. But the law also allowed North Carolina to give private companies ownership of riverbeds - to build a mill or dam, for example - so long as there was some benefit to the public.

The Yadkin Riverkeeper's attorney uncovered just such a transaction in 1897 between the state and a person named W. Smithdeal for land under two of Alcoa's current dams - which wouldn't be built for several more decades. Smithdeal agreed to pay royalties to the state, if requested. Historic documents written in scrawling script show the deeds changing hands several times before landing with an early predecessor to Progress Energy. But that's where the trail ran cold.

So Naujoks is now asking the North Carolina Department of Administration - which manages state lands - to dig deeper and determine once and for all who holds the deed.

"We don't know what the Secretary of Administration is ultimately going to determine, but we feel pretty confident that Alcoa cannot prove deed of ownership," says Naujoks.

Alcoa calls the claim "ridiculous" and says it has all the rights needed to own and operate its dams. WFAE asked to see those deeds and Alcoa declined. But the company insists its ownership was established in the early 20th century when the dams were built and again when the federal operating license was issued in 1958.
 
If the state were to take over the dams, Alcoa says it would be owed millions for the property.

If the Secretary of Administration determines Alcoa does indeed own the property beneath its dams, Naujoks believes Alcoa would owe the state a century's worth of royalty payments. That was spelled out the original deed for the land. A similar a case involving a Montana river is now before the U.S. Supreme Court.

And if Alcoa turns out not to own the Yadkin River bed, Naujoks argues the company has no claim to the dams or the profit they generate.
 
The North Carolina Secretary of Administration has 30 days to take up the Yadkin Riverkeeper's request.