It once was routine for people to criticize SCE&G over the way the utility managed Lake Murray, says Susan Melton, who moved to the expansive reservoir in 1987.
Sometimes in the winter, the utility would let water levels drop so much that parts of Lake Murray resembled a mudhole, she said. But, during the past 10 years, Melton said SCE&G dramatically has improved how it oversees the lake west of Columbia.
Now, Melton wonders whether the proposed sale of SCE&G’s parent company SCANA will mean a return to spotty management of Lake Murray. She is among many asking how the lake will be overseen if Dominion Energy buys SCANA.
“I’m not too much in favor of this,’’ Melton said of Dominion’s proposed acquisition. “I don’t think they would have the knowledge, perhaps, that our local company did – and maybe not the interest that SCE&G had.’’
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As the proposed sale of SCANA continues to generate debate about electric rates, one-time refunds and who will pay for its failed nuclear expansion project, there also are increasing questions about the future of the company’s real estate.
SCE&G owns some 40,000 acres of land statewide, including more than 1,800 acres of prime property in Cayce’s 12th Street corridor. Other holdings include Ramsey Grove, a plantation in Georgetown County, and Pine Island, a company recreation area on Lake Murray.
But the company’s crown jewel is the lake itself, a nearly 50,000-acre reservoir.
‘We’re all concerned’
Created in the 1920s to supply power, Lake Murray has become a recreational playground for the Midlands.
Today, there are thousands of homes and docks along what once was a forested shoreline. Boats from marinas zip around the lake on summer days, carrying warm-weather revelers happy to be out and about. Major fishing tournaments also are held on the expansive lake.
Buddy Bouknight, a fishing guide for 14 years at Lake Murray, said he is concerned that if SCE&G loses control of the lake, it could affect how fish are managed. Intake towers near the dam can kill fish, so the lake’s managers need to know what they are doing, he said.
“The basic concern I had with another company coming in to run the lake is if they will maintain the fisheries like they have in the past,’’ Bouknight said.
The basic concern I had with another company coming into the run the lake is if they will maintain the fisheries like they have in the past.”
Buddy Bouknight, a fishing guide
State Rep. Chip Huggins, a Republican whose Lexington County district includes much of Lake Murray, said he is hearing plenty from lakeside property owners about Dominion’s buyout offer. If that deal collapses, he also is worried about SCANA’s possible bankruptcy. If SCANA files for bankruptcy, as the company has said it might, “it could have some impact’’ on how the lake is managed, Huggins said.
In either case, local control of the lake by SCE&G could suffer, he said.
“We’re all concerned about it,’’ Huggins said. “Anytime you’ve got any kind of change like that, you do worry about somebody that is not local taking over.’’
We’re all concerned about it. Anytime you’ve got any kind of change like that, you do worry about somebody that is not local taking over.’’
State Rep. Chip Huggins, R-Lexington
Santee Cooper lakes up for grabs, too
SCANA’s proposed sale to Dominion follows a failed nuclear construction project that has put the Cayce-based utility in a precarious financial position.
SCE&G and its junior partner, Santee Cooper, spent $9 billion and nearly a decade on the nuclear expansion project in Fairfield County only to pull the plug July 31. The companies said the project had become too expensive in the wake of the bankruptcy of their chief contractor, Westinghouse.
Santee Cooper, the state-owned utility, also is being marketed for sale, and questions have surfaced about the future of two huge S.C. lakes – Moultrie and Marion – that utility manages.
However, if Santee Cooper is sold to a private company, Gov. Henry McMaster, R-Columbia, has pledged to make sure the lakes and adjoining parks remain open for the public.
No reason to worry, utilities say
Overseeing Lake Murray involves more than simply looking at a pretty lake.
Should Dominion buy SCANA, it likely would take control of duties that include managing lake levels, operating the massive Lake Murray hydroelectric dam, overseeing a public beach and issuing dock permits. The company also would have a say in how land is developed or maintained along the lake’s shoreline.
Both Dominion and SCE&G say Midlands residents have no reason to be concerned. The transition will be smooth, and Virginia-based Dominion will manage Lake Murray the way it always has been, officials say.
According to plans, SCE&G would become a division of Dominion.
“Lake Murray would continue to be owned and operated by SCE&G, as a subsidiary of the combined energy company,’’ SCE&G spokesman Ginny Jones said in an email. “At this time, we aren’t aware of any impacts that the merger would have on the local management or operation of Lake Murray.’’
Lake Murray would continue to be owned and operated by SCE&G, as a subsidiary of the combined energy company. At this time, we aren’t aware of any impacts that the merger would have on the local management or operation of Lake Murray.’’
SCE&G spokesman Ginny Jones
Dominion spokesman Chet Wade said he sees a smooth transition.
Dominion has ample experience managing lakes in the Southeast. It already oversees lakes in Virginia and North Carolina, doing much the same thing on those reservoirs as SCE&G does with Lake Murray, officials said.
Wade said a good example of the company’s experience is with Lake Anna, a 13,000-acre reservoir in Virginia between Washington and Richmond. Unlike Lake Murray, Anna was created to serve a nuclear plant in that area in the 1970s. But like Lake Murray, it has grown as a recreational venue with homes along its shoreline.
Dominion also oversees the 20,000-acre Lake Gaston, a hydroelectric lake that is a popular recreational destination on the Virginia-North Carolina border. Dominion oversees the permitting of docks and development along its shores, officials said.
Spokesman Rick Zuercher said Dominion also has extensive experience operating dams. One of its reservoirs, a nonresidential lake in western Virginia, is one of the largest pumped-storage facilities in the country, the company says. At that lake, water is pumped between an upper reservoir and a lower one to make energy.
“We operate dams as part of our process of providing electricity,’’ he said.
Hoping for the best
Still, managing 48,000-acre Lake Murray could be a challenge because of its size and its urban nature.
About 12,000 docks jut into the water, many of them leading to high-end houses.
Touching four counties, Lake Murray is fed by the Saluda River that runs from the mountains to central South Carolina. The lower Saluda, below the dam, is a popular destination for trout fishermen and kayakers, attracted by the river’s whitewater rapids.
Operating the dam is particularly important to people who fish and boat on the lower Saluda, which has the only known trout population in central South Carolina.
One question that could surface is whether Dominion’s acquisition of SCE&G will affect efforts to gain a new federal operating license for the Lake Murray dam. After about 15 years of work, that license is near final approval by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
The license is significant because it governs an array of issues, including lake levels and how much water is released into the lower Saluda, as well as management of the lake’s shoreline.
Agreements have been struck between SCE&G and various interest groups over how the lake will be managed under a new license. SCE&G already voluntarily has made some of the proposed changes in anticipation of the license being approved. But some issues still must be resolved. A concern is whether Dominion voluntarily would honor agreements made by SCE&G before the license is granted.
“We don’t have the new license yet. That has been a pain in the neck,’’ said Steve Bell, a founder of Lake Murray Watch, a watchdog group. “I’m thinking they (Dominion) are going to have to operate under the new license. It has stuff in there to protect the lake and water quality.’’
We don’t have the new license yet. That has been a pain in the neck. I’m thinking they (Dominion) are going to have to operate under the new license. It has stuff in there to protect the lake and water quality.’’
Steve Bell, a founder of Lake Murray Watch, a watchdog group
While those issues are important, possible commercial development along the lake is a concern for many residents, including Susan Melton.
Hundreds of acres of land are to be protected when the dam license is approved, but that doesn’t preserve all of the lake shore.
Commercial development “could go wild out here if we don’t get the right people in,’’ Melton said.
State Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, said some of the land around Lake Murray would be attractive for sale.
“Look at Pine Island,’’ she said. “That is a valuable piece of property. That would be a great investment for somebody.’’
Staff photographer Tim Dominick contributed to this story.