Alabama Power Company is beginning efforts to get a new license for its R.L. Harris hydroelectric dam on the Tallapoosa River.
The long process involving the Tallapoosa River dam starts as the company faces an unfamiliar road elsewhere. A court decision took away its 2013 license to operate seven Coosa River dams on Monday.
Never before has a federal dam license been vacated by a court after it has been in service for years. The company is awaiting direction from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on how to proceed.
Alabama Power’s license for the Harris hydroelectric dam on the Tallapoosa expires in 2023.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, known as FERC, recently led the first public meetings in the complicated, years-long process toward approval for the Harris Dam. Alabama Power has set up a website, containing documents, meeting dates and other information on the project.
Alabama Power spokesman Michael Sznajderman said the Coosa finding isn’t expected to affect the Harris Dam. “Every relicensing and license application is different and is determined on its own merit,” he said. “The court’s ruling related specifically to aspects of FERC’s and (the U.S.) Fish and Wildlife (Service’s) analysis in connection to the Coosa and only the Coosa.”
Ruling on Coosa Dams
The license for dams on the Coosa was vacated last month by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. The case was sent back to FERC with an order to perform more environmental studies. The Department of Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service was ordered to re-do its analysis of aquatic life impacts.
The court’s opinion said the studies are necessary because the agency did not choose to factor in “the decades of environmental damage already wrought by exploitation of the waterway for power generation and that damage’s continuing ecological effects.” The court said the decision to issue the license in 2013 was “arbitrary and capricious” and “unreasoned and unsupported by substantial evidence.”
Sznajderman said in an email, “We are now operating under our prior Coosa license while FERC and the Department of the Interior determine the next steps. Everything is normal on the Coosa – no operational changes, hydro-generation is normal, lake levels normal, customers not affected in any way. Folks can enjoy the Coosa reservoirs as they would normally.”
Because the case is unprecedented, it has drawn the interest of the nation’s environmentalists, utilities, and the large hydropower relicensing industry, according to Cindy Lowry, executive director of the Alabama Rivers Alliance. Nobody, it seems, knows what’s ahead.
“We don’t know the timeline and there’s no precedent, so our attorneys will reach out to FERC to see what their plans are for moving forward,” she said.
Closer Look at River’s Health
Lowry said she hopes the process will result in a closer examination of environmental health of the river, rather than a more cursory survey. “We are pleased the court said (the analysis) can’t just look at the situation going forward, but also at the impact that’s already occurred,” she added.
Among the factors to be considered is damage to aquatic life from low dissolved oxygen levels in the Coosa caused by dam operations. Fish kills have occurred from the insufficient oxygen, and some endangered river shellfish species have been decimated.
In addition, the river’s dams prevent some species of fish, including striped bass, from swimming upriver to spawn, necessitating the river be restocked regularly. In other states, fish “ladders” around the dams have provided one solution.
Gil Rogers, director of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Alabama and Georgia offices, was quoted in the Montgomery Advertiser saying “the Fish and Wildlife Service did not do its job accounting for impact to endangered species and looking at ways to mitigate those impacts.”
Attorneys from the center had brought the suit to overturn the Coosa dams’ license on behalf of the environmental groups.
“Hopefully,” Lowry said, “a new license will consider all those impacts and how (the power company) could operate the dams in a way that will better balance the generation of hydropower and the ecological needs of the stream.
The power company on June 1 notified FERC of its intent to file the application for a new license for Harris Dam. It operates three other dams on the Tallapoosa River. Its license for Lake Martin was issued in 2015 for 30 years, and the license for Yates and Thurlow dams was issued in 1993 for 40 years.
Of the company’s dams on the Warrior River, the Smith and Bankhead dams were licensed in 2010 for 30 years, and the Holt Dam was issued in 2016 for 50 years.
Harris Dam is in Lineville, about 85 miles from Birmingham. The Tallapoosa River originates in northeast Georgia and flows through the Talladega National Forest and four Alabama Power dams before joining the Coosa River near Wetumpka to form the Alabama River.Read more about the court’s decision: