Wateree fish dispute settled; dam relicensing likely

07/17/2014 8:26 PM

07/17/2014 8:28 PM

Duke Energy and environmentalists have reached an agreement that is forecast to protect a rare fish species and end years of legal fights over the company’s plan to operate dams on the Catawba-Wateree river chain.

The settlement clears the last obstacle for Duke in its quest to obtain a federal operating license for 11 dams from the North Carolina mountains to near Congaree National Park in central South Carolina. South Carolina regulators now can issue a water quality permit that is needed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to approve the new license, the power company and environmental groups said Thursday.

The accord is also important because it is expected to improve habitat for the endangered shortnose sturgeon in the Wateree River below Duke’s southernmost dam, although the agreement doesn’t resolve all matters involving the impact of dams on sturgeon. South Carolina state-owned power company Santee Cooper still must address concerns from federal fisheries managers about dwindling sturgeon populations in lakes Moultrie and Marion, where dams have blocked fish movement.

Duke, the Carolinas’ largest energy company, has been fighting environmentalists in court since 2008 over how it releases water from the Lake Wateree dam northeast of Columbia. That held up a new license for dams on the the entire Catawba River chain. The new license will be in effect for up to 50 years.

At issue is whether the company’s releases of water through the dam are adequate to maintain proper river levels for the shortnose sturgeon, a federally protected endangered species that once was abundant in the Wateree River below the dam. A few sturgeon have been documented in the Wateree River in recent years and environmentalists said spawning habitat needs protection.

The agreement, announced Thursday by environmental groups, resolves those issues, conservationists said. A key part of the settlement requires Duke to make sure flows are more consistent at times during the spring, when sturgeon spawn, environmentalists said. Stable water levels are expected to help the rare species reproduce.

“This is a great day for the Catawba-Wateree River,” said Julie Youngman, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “The agreement between the parties strikes the proper balance between energy supply and ecological protection – and that’s good news for folks who care about the river.”

The law center, American Rivers and the S.C. Coastal Conservation League had fought a state water quality permit. The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control denied the permit in 2009, saying dam operations could affect water quality. Duke then appealed. The case is now before the S.C. Supreme Court, but that case will be abandoned as part of the deal, said American Rivers’ Gerrit Jobsis.

It’s possible opposition could surface before DHEC acts to approve a water quality permit, but that is unlikely since Duke’s most ardent foes have signed off on the deal. It could take DHEC several months to issue a permit, after which FERC would act.

Duke spokeswoman Catherine Butler said the power company is pleased with the agreement.

“We are encouraged at the prospect of resolving this issue,” she said. “It will pave the way for the new license issuance.”

Thursday’s announcement follows a decision this past spring by federal fisheries officials that removed concerns about sturgeon in the Catawba-Wateree basin.

Shortnose and Atlantic sturgeon are rare fish that date to prehistoric times. Covered in bony plates, they are sizable fish that once were abundant in the Southeast before hydroelectric dams were built. Those dams blocked passage of sturgeon between the ocean and interior freshwater rivers, causing populations to drop so significantly they were listed as an endangered species.

Duke’s settlement agreement resolves only part of a larger question about sturgeon in South Carolina. Santee Cooper still needs licenses for dams at lakes Marion and Moultrie. Federal wildlife officials have said operation of the dams could cause the extinction of some sturgeon populations. Issues to be resolved there include how to improve passage of sturgeon from salt to freshwater.

Still, Jobsis said settling the dispute with Duke along the Catawba-Wateree system is significant. Disagreements between Duke and environmentalists over re-licensing the company’s dams extend to 2002.

“We’ve been working on this for more than a dozen years, so getting to the point where we can see the finish line is just huge,” Jobsis said.

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