New License Issued to One of Nation’s Largest Hydroelectric Projects
Today’s blog is by guest author Vicki Taylor, Executive coordinator for the Catawba-Wateree Relicensing Coalition. The Catawba River was listed on the 2013 America’s Most Endangered Rivers report.
For more than a dozen years, hundreds of stakeholders including state and federal agencies, conservation groups, counties and municipalities, and citizens’ organizations worked with Duke Energy in the relicensing of the Catawba-Wateree Hydroelectric Project. Generating over eight-hundred megawatts of electricity with 13 hydropower facilities and 11 reservoirs strung along 225 miles of river flowing through the Carolinas; it is the largest hydropower project in the Southeast and one of the largest in the country.
On November 25, 2015 the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued a 40-year license for Duke Energy to continue to operate the project. The terms of the license largely mirror the application and the multi-party settlement agreement that Duke filed in 2006. The new license and implementation of the agreement were delayed for several years due to the time it took for the endangered species consultation as well as a prolonged legal challenge. But the delays don’t detract from the major accomplishment this new license represents.
One of the biggest stories from my experience was Duke’s evolution from being very conservative in their bargaining stance to actively embracing the benefits of collaboration and seeking mutually beneficial outcomes.
At one point during the negotiations Duke’s representatives said that putting water back in the dry bed of what was once the Great Falls of the Catawba was a non-starter. But now, in the settlement agreement signed by Duke and 69 other stakeholders, and subsequently ordered in their new hydropower license, water will again cascade over the boulders that have been dry for over 100 years. With newly required environmental flows for habitat and a regular schedule of whitewater flows for paddlers, the Great Falls will come back to life.
The complexity of the negotiations and tenacity of the parties – especially during the intense period of negotiation – cannot adequately be described here. But the results include a settlement and license that not only seeks to balance diverse interests but also creates integrated solutions to issues.
In addition to re-watering the Great Falls, highlights include significant enhancements to recreation areas and increased access to the lakes and river. The addition of camping areas, trails, fishing platforms, swimming areas, canoe/kayak launches and the creation of a few parks is to be celebrated.
There is much to be proud in the results. Continuous, environmental flows have been added or substantially improved at most of the dams benefiting more than 125 miles of the river. Reservoir levels for the first time have regulated targets, maximums and minimums. Species protection plans have been prepared by state and federal agencies and are adopted into the new license. If successful not only will important plant and animal species be protected, but we may once again see American shad, American eels and blueback herring moving from river to ocean and back again. We may once again have shortnose and Atlantic Sturgeon spawning below Lake Wateree – or maybe one day above the dam?
One potentially serious issue remains however. Duke had applied for a 50 year license. But because the FERC felt that the measures they are taking to improve water quality, habitat, recreation and renewable energy are “moderate” rather than “extensive” they did not justify giving Duke a 50 year term. Since the settlement agreement includes additional land conservation measures that are conditioned on Duke getting a 50 year term these are now in jeopardy. Duke had also attempted to condition the building of flood mitigation modifications at the Wateree dam on obtaining a 50 year term. The FERC however ordered Duke to perform the flood mitigation modifications even with the 40 year term recognizing this as an important public safety feature for homeowners and others using the lake.
Duke has now filed a Request for Rehearing with the FERC asking for the term to be extended to 50 years along with a few other less significant changes. They are asking parties to the agreement to write letters of support to the FERC. If the FERC does not grant the longer term, Duke has indicated that they will exhaust all legal remedies which could result in a lengthy appeals process. This could delay some of the benefits from the settlement agreement but it will not delay the terms included in the new license which went into full effect on November 25. If they are unsuccessful in obtaining the 50 year term they may then seek to modify the settlement agreement through use of a clause that allows them to “re-balance” its terms or even withdraw from the agreement.
So far, Duke has indicated that it has no intention of withdrawing. There are a lot of stakeholders who are encouraged by this and hope the settlement terms and the great benefits they provide remain in place. An “all parties” meeting is scheduled for February 29.
No matter what happens the overall result of the process is a very good one. The agreements forged among stakeholders built the foundation for a new legacy of how we work together to protect and manage our river. Partnerships and collaborations born during negotiations continue to develop as we tackle new and emerging issues. A Water Management Group made of suppliers from up and down the entire basin is now working to coordinate and plan for our long term future. Officials and other stakeholders seek regional solutions made with diverse interests in mind. The benefits written into the agreement and ordered by the license are excellent by themselves but when coupled with the longer term outcomes stemming from the relationships and perspectives gained in the process, an even larger legacy is growing. We can all look forward to better management of and access to our rivers.
Vicki Taylor is the Executive coordinator for the Catawba-Wateree Relicensing Coalition a non-profit organization which served an integral role in providing citizen input to the relicensing process and settlement negotiations.