Big Wins for Rivers in the Southeast
July brought big victories for two legal cases initiated by American Rivers that will significantly benefit rivers in the Southeast. These victories would not have been possible without our close collaboration with and strong support from regional and local conservation organizations.
In Georgia, the State Court of Appeals sided with American Rivers, Southern Environmental Law Center, Georgia River Network in ruling that all state waters are protected under Georgia law by a 25-foot vegetative buffer, benefiting tens of thousands of miles of rivers across the state. These buffers are strips of trees and plants along a stream or wetland that are left in place to naturally filter out dirt and pollution from rain water runoff before it enters rivers, streams, wetlands, and marshes. Without protective buffers, Georgia waters are at risk of becoming clogged with mud and sediment pollution, choking out aquatic life.
The decision overrules the Georgia Environmental Protection Division’s (EPD) policy that only some state waters are protected by the Erosion and Sedimentation Act’s buffer provision, and also invalidates EPD Director Judson Turner’s April 2014 memorandum that stripped the protective buffer from the Georgia Coast. The Southern Environmental Law Center filed the case on behalf of American Rivers and the Georgia River Network in 2012 after EPD failed to require Grady County to obtain a variance for impacting freshwater wetland buffers in its bid to build a 960-acre impoundment on Tired Creek near Cairo, Georgia. After EPD neglected to correct its oversight, the groups filed a successful appeal with the Office of State Administrative Hearings to rectify the agency’s failure to require a buffer variance for impacts to buffers along wetlands on the site. The July ruling overturned a state Superior Court ruling which the conservation the groups appealed.
American Rivers welcomes the court’s decision affirming the consistent, clear application of environmental protections across Georgia. Having these common-sense safeguards for all the State’s waterways ensures that clean water for local communities is protected.
The Catawba and Wateree rivers flow more than 300 miles from their headwaters in the North Carolina foothills, through the Charlotte metro area, and into South Carolina before emptying into the Santee River at the Congaree National Park. Along its course, Duke Energy owns and operates 11 hydropower dams that while producing electricity also alter natural flows needed for river and floodplain health, impact fish spawning success and reduce dissolved oxygen essential for fish and wildlife. Duke’s dams are undergoing a federal licensing process which will set operational requirements, including how to reduce impacts of the dams on river health, for the next 30 to 50 years. The Catawba-Wateree project is the nation’s largest hydroelectric project currently undergoing the federal licensing process.
In July, American Rivers, the Southern Environmental Law Center, and the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League reached a settlement agreement with Duke Energy and the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control that includes important protections for the Catawba and Wateree rivers and its fish and wildlife. The agreement ends a 5-year legal stalemate over the issuance of a state water quality permit needed for Duke’s new operating license for the Catawba-Wateree hydroelectric project.
The Catawba-Wateree settlement requires Duke Energy to release enough water from the dams to benefit endangered sturgeon. The fish, found in 76 miles of the Wateree River, need certain flows at specific times of the year to aid in their spawning. The settlement also safeguards natural flooding of the 91,000 acre Wateree River floodplain including part of the Congaree National Park, which harbors one of the nation’s most significant bottomland forests. Through the settlement, Duke Energy agreed to file petitions with the South Carolina State Supreme Court and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to halt Duke’s legal appeal and procedural challenge to the state of South Carolina’s ability to issue a water quality permit for the new operating license. The agreement resolves the last outstanding issues before FERC can issue a new license and ensures that Duke Energy does its part to help take care of this river that is essential for its business and the people who value it.
Our victories in Georgia and South Carolina illustrate the value of the persistence shown by American Rivers and our partner organizations. In both cases we knew that a long, protracted campaign would be needed to ensure the future health of these rivers and our actions paid great dividends.