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Bi-State Water War Avoided?

November 22, 2010

That is, along the Catawba River in North Carolina and South Carolina.  This bi-state water war was sparked by the prospect of an interbasin transfer amidst the southeast’s epic 2007 drought.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities floated a plan to transfer 10 million gallons of water per day from the Catawba River basin into the neighboring Yadkin River basin to growing North Carolina communities.  South Carolina – the Catawba’s downstream ‘community’ that faced a future of diminished water supplies – initiated a legal challenge in 2007.  After three years, millions of dollars spent in legal fees, and the prospect of a lengthy US Supreme Court case, the two states have since reached a tentative agreement.  According to South Carolina’s Attorney General, the agreement could be “a model of regional cooperation for the future for other states.”  Let’s evaluate that bold claim for Georgia water-wonks.

The Lessons in the Details.

First: the federal player.  Since there are no federal or Army Corps of Engineers reservoirs on the interstate Catawba River, the Corps is not involved as an active participant.  That said, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is a critical player as will become apparent.

Second: public discussions.  North Carolina representatives demanded that an existing bi-state water commission negotiate a future water sharing plan in open and public forums.  The current Alabama, Florida, and Georgia negotiations are shrouded in legal secrecy.

Third: the private player.  Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities’ water comes from Mountain Island Lake, one of eleven major reservoirs Duke Energy maintains on the 225 mile long Catawba River to generate hydro, nuclear and thermoelectric (coal and gas) energy for the Carolinas’ economic juggernaut.  Duke Energy – operating continuously since 1905 – has also allowed local governments to draw on Duke’s reservoirs for municipal and industrial water supplies.  The bi-state commission’s water sharing plan and agreement will be based on Duke Energy’s Catawba River FERC license which details how the company will operate eleven hydroelectric dams and reservoirs.  Duke Energy is currently negotiating the license renewal with FERC (the license was first issued in 1958).

For Georgians: The Southern Company and its three subsidiaries operate facilities in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia within the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) river basin.  Unlike Duke Energy, the Southern Company appears as a silent actor on the sidelines of the tri-state water war.  Within the ACF river basin, Georgia Power maintains eight hydroelectric dams and three fossil fuel plants, Alabama Power manages the nuclear Plant Farley, and Gulf Power operates Plant Scholz.  Combined, these facilities are permitted to withdraw up to                  2 billion gallons of water every day to make electricity, and much of that water flows from the Corps’ Lake Lanier and other dams into the Gulf of Mexico.  Why, then, is the Southern Company so quiet when it comes to the tri-state water war?  I hear more about endangered mussels, marina operators, metro Atlanta’s water supplies, IBTs, and an ineffectual Corps.  Surely all of the Southern Company’s connected operations would benefit from a well-managed federal reservoir and municipal water (and energy) efficiency programs.  Is the tri-state water war good or bad for the energy utilities’ business?

Visit the Catawba Riverkeeper for more information on the NC/SC bi-state water war issue.

-Chris Manganiello

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