America’s Most Endangered River is in the Southeast – the ACF: a target for more power plants?

This blog was written by Sara Barczak, former Regional Advocacy Director with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, and Chris Williams of American Rivers.

Guest Blog | April 19, 2016 | Energy Policy, Nuclear

Last week American Rivers announced their America’s Most Endangered Rivers 2016 list. The Apalachicola-Flint-Chattahoochee (ACF) river system, which is shared among three states, Georgia, Alabama and Florida, and is the focus of the decades-long Tri-State Water Wars, received the dubious honor as the #1 selection. Below is a guest blog from American Rivers’ Chris Williams about the ACF selection that was first published on April 12, 2016. Find the original post here.

Notably, Georgia Power (parent company Southern Company) has put forward information in their 2016 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), a long-term energy planning process looking forward twenty years that is conducted every three years before the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC), and notes that they are considering possible new nuclear generation at a site in Stewart County, Georgia along the Chattahoochee River. (Find Georgia Power’s filing here, specifically STF-6-14). The utility purchased land in the county, though Commissioners were reportedly not informed of the purchase beforehand. This would be in addition to the two under-construction reactors at Georgia Power’s Plant Vogtle along the Savannah River that are at least 39 months delayed and many billions of dollars over budget. Nuclear power is extremely water-intensive (find details on Vogtle’s water use here). The Chattahoochee River is not ripe for any electric utility to tap using a giant straw given the contentious Tri-State Water Wars and we believe it is a complete waste of ratepayer money for Georgia Power to pursue evaluating the Stewart County site and preparing a license application to possibly file with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

As a formal intervenor in the current IRP process, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy asked hard questions about this proposal during the hearing this week before the PSC. Additionally, the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, Jason Ulseth, provided excellent public comments, highlighting the serious and unacceptable impacts such a proposal would have on this imperiled river system. Hopefully the Commissioners listen to the public’s concerns with investing more money in expensive, risky and water-intensive nuclear power and rejects this proposal.

–Sara Barczak, SACE’s High Risk Energy Choices Program Director

Moving from Conflict to Cooperation by Chris Williams, American Rivers

Whiskey is for drinking, water is for…cooperating?

It doesn’t quite have the same ring as the famous phrase “whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting,” often attributed to but likely never uttered by Mark Twain. But the sentiment animates American Rivers’ Most Endangered Rivers List of 2016.

The #1 river on the list, the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) system in Georgia, Alabama and Florida, is threatened as much by an historic inability of competing interests to work cooperatively as by dams, pollution, or climate change. But, as another folksy wise man really did once say, “the times, they are a-changin’.”

Since 1984, the America’s Most Endangered Rivers report has trained an annual spotlight on rivers across the country that are under threat and facing a critical decision-point in the coming year. The report is a geography lesson, a dire warning and, most importantly, a call to action. It is a guide to how ordinary citizens like you and me can move key decision-makers – governors, federal agencies, state officials, municipal authorities – to take action to protect and conserve rivers. For the complete America’s Most Endangered Rivers List of 2016, including information about what you can do to help, click here.

In the case of this year’s #1 Most Endangered River, the proximate causes of the ACF’s distress are increasing pressure on the resource from ever-growing demand for water and a changing climate. The Flint and Chattahoochee rivers rise in Georgia – the Chattahoochee in the mountains north of Atlanta, and the Flint near the Atlanta airport – and they join near the Florida border to form the Apalachicola, which flows to the Gulf of Mexico. More than four million people, including 70 percent of metro Atlanta, rely on the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers for drinking water, and in addition the ACF must provide water for industry, power generation, agriculture and recreation.

The competition for this limited resource is intense, and the strain on the relatively small river basin is beginning to show. Tributaries of the Flint River often run dry in drought years due to agricultural water use, and downstream the riparian ecology of the Apalachicola is withering away as insufficient flow severs the river from its floodplain. In addition, the ACF provides 35 percent of the fresh water and nutrients to the eastern Gulf, nurturing the spectacular Florida estuary of Apalachicola Bay and supporting commercial fisheries valued at more than $5.8 billion.

In 2012, the bay’s famous oyster fishery collapsed, due in part to lack of freshwater coming down from Georgia. Cities, agriculture, industry and the ecosystem itself are placing heavy demands on a river system at increasing risk of prolonged drought as climate change takes hold.

Hmm…cities, farmers, and fishermen competing for water…growing demands in Georgia contributing to lack of water and an environmental crisis in Florida…sounds like the makings of a water war.

In fact, conflict over the waters of the ACF has been raging for 25 years, bursting into full view during the prolonged drought of the century’s first decade and coming to a head recently in a battle between Florida and Georgia in the U.S. Supreme Court. Caught in the crossfire is the U.S Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the major dams and reservoirs of the ACF system. The Corps has exacerbated the problems by consistently failing to balance the rising demands for water in metro Atlanta with the need to deliver water downstream. Though burgeoning demand, climate change and other factors are seriously impacting the ACF, it is the perpetual conflict over the river system and its resources – the water war itself – that is stymieing progress towards a solution.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Congress, the three states and the Corps share responsibility for the mismanagement of water in the ACF basin that has led to a suffering river system and an atmosphere of conflict and mistrust. Now they must take the lead in creating a new model, moving from conflict to cooperation.

Georgia, Florida and Alabama must work cooperatively to reach a water-sharing agreement that protects the rivers, floodplains and Apalachicola Bay while promoting conservation and efficiency in water use basin-wide. The three governors should create a transboundary water management institution to bring stakeholders together to foster transparent, science-based adaptive water management throughout the basin. To support this effort, the Corps must substantially improve management of its dam and reservoir system in the ACF Basin by, for example, establishing proper amount, timing, and variability in flow releases to maintain the health of the Apalachicola River floodplain and bay system.

The chances of putting such changes into place have rarely been better, as the Corps works on an update of its ACF Water Control Manual, due to be completed this year. The Corps should meaningfully involve the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and other federal and state natural resource agencies in the update and implementation of the Manual, incorporating up-to-date projections of future water needs, especially in North Georgia, and consideration of environmental impacts extending from the headwaters to Apalachicola Bay.

It sounds like a tall order, and it is, but the move from water conflict to water cooperation is not unprecedented, and in fact is beginning to take hold all over the country. In Washington State, municipalities, irrigators, tribes, sportsmen, and conservationists decided to put aside confrontation and instead cooperate to conserve and improve the management of the Yakima River, a river system facing challenges not too different from those facing the ACF.

Today the Yakima River Integrated Management Plan is in place and implementation is getting under way. Their model of cooperation is being promoted and studied by stakeholders from the Colorado River to the Neuse River in North Carolina. Even in the ACF, diverse stakeholder groups such as the Upper Flint River Working Group and ACF Stakeholders are working across the battle lines of the water war to promote water management reforms and river conservation.

The truth about Mark Twain is that he loved whiskey and water. His thoughts on whiskey are best left to an earlier age, but of his beloved Mississippi he said this: “The face of the river, in time, becomes a wonderful book…delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly if it had uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day.” We’re seeing in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint that continuing conflict is taking that river’s story towards a bitter end. But it’s not too late to bring stakeholders across the basin together to write a different ending. Not an ending at all, in fact, but a new and better future, a healthy, resilient river that from headwaters to estuary tells a new story, every day.

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