Lake vs. river issue up to feds

It's up to federal officials to settle a squabble over how much water should flow from Lake Murray into the lower Saluda River during a drought.

South Carolina Electric & Gas Co. and lake homeowners want to release two-thirds less than state natural resources officials, river boaters and anglers favor during dry weather.

The battle is the only unsettled part of a package of changes SCE&G is proposing for lake operations that could be in effect for up to 50 years.

"On this one, we've agreed to disagree," SCE&G vice president Jim Landreth said.

The recent drought made lake groups more protective as water levels dropped lower and longer than expected.

But river groups and state natural resources officials are intensifying their campaign for more water even if it means lake coves dry up at times.

All groups are making final appeals to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency that oversees utilities' operation of lakes originally built for hydropower.

Here is a snapshot of what is at stake:

What do lake groups want?

Those who live and play on the lake are siding reluctantly with SCE&G's plan as the compromise most likely to keep the lake level highest.

Lake groups worry the demands of river interests would take away too much water and make many coves unusable for boaters as soon as mid-summer.

SCE&G is proposing releases into the river at twice the level lake groups initially supported.

Its plan puts much more water into the river to accommodate recreation there but ensures enough is kept in the lake to avert problems when rain is scarce, officials at the Cayce-based utility say.

The plan isn't "unreasonably aggressive" in conserving water in the lake and will provide river interests plenty of flow without forcing sacrifice around the lakeshore, SCE&G says.

What do river groups want?

Those who want better fishing and boating on the 10-mile stretch of river below the lake complain SCE&G and lake groups are stingy.

They favor a plan developed by state natural resources officials for much higher flows in the river. Anything less, the plan says, is "overly protective" of lake interests.

Natural resources officials say higher flows into the river will hamper lake recreation "rarely" but call that acceptable since not all lake coves will be affected.

SCE&G says that demand is excessive on top of increased flow the settlement guaranteed to improve river recreation.

How much water is in question?

State natural resources officials estimate their plan would require that 1.4 billion gallons of water flow through the lake into the river daily during a drought.

SCE&G supports releases into the river at a third of that level - 460 million gallons daily.

Much of the water is replenished from rivers and other streams flowing into the man-made lake, created 79 years ago by damming a Saluda River valley.

But there is widespread disagreement over how quickly the lake can recover if more water goes into the river during droughts.

By some estimates, lake coves would be dry a week at most in a severe drought. By others, it would be a month or more at the height of boating season in mid-summer.

When will a decision settling the conflict occur?

Federal officials have no deadline. Their plan is to offer preliminary comments in January on a package of proposed changes in lake operations, with a goal of finalizing revisions by mid-2010. They could include a hint of their thinking then or say it needs more study.