Commander: An open letter on Savannah River Basin drought management

Editor’s Note: Since entering drought level 1 some stakeholders in the upper basin have written urging Savannah District leaders should take immediate and dramatic actions to preserve reservoir levels. Col. Thomas Tickner, the District Commander addresses these emails in this open-letter posting.

Thank you for your recent input and your views on managing the Savannah River basin. As my staff and I have said many times, we take this responsibility very seriously. I have assigned top-notch experts to oversee the actions we take to keep the multiple purposes of the river balanced.

We manage water in the basin under our Water Manual of 1996 and under the most recent Drought Management Plan (2012). We created both plans using input from our primary partners in the basin, the State of Georgia and the State of South Carolina. The states own the water in the reservoir system and in the river, which gives the states a major voice in how we manage the system. We collected input from local governments, industry, utilities and other stakeholders including the general public as we worked on the plans.

Our current drought plan sets progressively lower outflows as we enter each drought condition. While this may not satisfy everyone in the basin, it balances the multiple congressionally-set purposes of the reservoirs. The plan also ensures shared benefit and shared sacrifice for residents in the upper and lower basins. This does not mean we will never change the plans. We are always looking for ways to improve the system. However, the time to make changes is not at the whim of one individual or even based on one stakeholder group. ‎It is through collective study and thorough analysis. Changes have been made in this way to make operation of the Savannah River System better over the years.

Currently both states, The Nature Conservancy and the Savannah District are jointly conducting another phase in the Savannah River Comprehensive Study. In the current phase of the Comp Study the group will evaluate the possibility of initiating a 3,600 cubic feet per second (cfs) outflow at drought level 1. The group will also look at lowering that to 3,100 cfs during the winter months. This phase of the study will also examine alternate refill strategies. Completion of this phase of the Comp Study is still more than a year away. Future phases of the Comp Study will follow as funding becomes available from the federal and non-federal sources.

Contrary to what some would like us to do, Congress never authorized the Corps of Engineers to take unilateral actions to modify operations of river basins. I can’t simply order changes to the water management operations or changes to the drought plan. Federal law requires intense study of impacts to the environment (including the human environment) before taking such actions.

Again, thank you for your continuing concern for the management of the Savannah River basin. The Savannah District, the states and all the stakeholders in the basin must cooperate to keep the basin needs balanced and available for the benefit of all users.

Colonel, US Army
Commander, Savannah District

About US Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District oversees a multi-million dollar military construction program at 11 Army and Air Force installations in Georgia and North Carolina. We also manage water resources across the Coastal Georgia region, including maintenance dredging of the Savannah and Brunswick harbors; operation of three hydroelectric dams and reservoirs along the upper Savannah River; and administration of an extensive stream and wetland permitting and mitigation program within the state of Georgia. Follow us on Twitter @SavannahCorps and on
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  • Tom Wright

    The Corps is doing an overall good job under dificult circumstances

  • Gene Hagberg

    I read all the comments about keeping the water level up on Lake Thurmond during the winter months. However, I disagree. I’m a fisherman, or at least I try to be. The current level is about 325, and is probably at it’s most dangerous. Many trees are just below the water level in the Little River/Rousseau Creek/Lloyds Creek area and pose a danger to boating. There are no summertime skiers or pleasure boaters present, and will not be until next summer. So drop the water level another couple of feet, expose the submerged trees, and let the crappie fishing take over. You can bring it back up prior to next summer in time for all the weekenders.

  • Jerry Clontz

    Save Our Lakes Now has talked to state leaders repeatedly in the past and they have never indicated that they want the lakes to drop drastically in droughts. Why not let the head of each of these organizations post their views. I wouldn’t ask for this except that Col. Tickner is clearly trying to indicate that they are the reason he refuses to adapt to past lessons in drought management.
    So far as balancing the basin, putting the whole system at risk by throwing the limited water from rain into the ocean is not balance.

    • Hello Jerry. Both states agreed to our drought contingency plan and base their decisions that affect the basin off the current plan. By following the water manual and drought plan, we are in essence fulfilling an obligation to operate the way we said we would. As COL Tickner stated, we are not opposed to change, but we are legally bound to go through the process that requires study of the value and impacts of any changes, and coordination with state, federal and public partners. ~Russell Wicke

      • Jerry Clontz

        We understand your position. We just disagree. You have years of data and tons of experience from recent droughts to make engineering decisions from. Operators blindly follow procedures because they are not qualified to make changes. Engineers write procedures based on their knowledge and experience. We are simply pleading that the Corps of Engineers do the job they have been hired to do and make engineering decisions and change procedures as needed.

        So far as state agreement, I doubt very seriously that you can get the heads of these two agencies to post a comment stating they agree that you should be blindly following the drought plan without making improvements based on experience..

        • I believe you make some unrealistic allegations Jerry – and based on your response I find it difficult to believe you understand. You are asking the Corps to making an isolated decision to change operating protocols without regard to input from any other agency. I have told you we don’t have the legal authority to do that. If you understood this, why do you keep expecting us to make changes without input from the resource agencies?

          I will restate: We don’t have the data needed to demonstrate the value, risks and impacts of your proposed operation (3,600 cfs constant). If we did we wouldn’t be spending $908,000 of state and federal funding to do the research and collect the data. We would simply show the data to the resource agencies, make a recommendation and let them determine if the proposal is viable.

          You should at least find some satisfaction knowing we are including your 3,600 cfs constant proposal as one of the five alternative operations being considered in the Comp Study. This alone should demonstrate that we have listened to you – your position has been heard, and we are spending time and resources to take a serious look at your recommendation.

          As for your challenge on getting the state DNRs to voice their support right here on the blog, I don’t need to. We already have their approval on official record via the EA. Based on this fact, the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate your assertion. ~Russell

  • Ferris

    COL Tickner, the more I learn about the considerations required for managing the SRB, the more appreciation I have for the great job you and your team are executing. You have comprehensive, integrated responsibilities from the headwaters to the Atlantic, and you fulfill these responsibilities in plain sight of and in open communication with basin stakeholders. You regularly have to make difficult choices between multiple purposes, and it is rare that you fail to achieve the best overall outcome. I appreciate that you are always looking for ways to improve. In my opinion, those who do not give you and your team top scores have not bothered to learn what is required to support the multiple purposes and the limits of your authority. Your performance is commendable. ~Ferris

  • Fish1

    I recall that we have been thru numerous droughts with adverse impacts on our lake levels, normally followed by
    Corps promises to look at the drought plan and make needed revisions. These have
    resulted in a minor rearranging of the numbers, and no significant
    change. The event which did bring us change was the drought of record and
    Col Kertis’ responses which kept the lakes viable. He stressed the
    ‘lessons learned’ as we went thru the drought and came out with full
    lakes. We saw what was needed, what worked, and what the impact on
    other stakeholders was. Have those lessons learned been lost?
    the nadir of the drought, the SEPA confirmed that they have numerous
    sources for hydropower, and that the Corps should manage the lakes and
    they would manage hydropower. They stated that there was no shortage of
    electrical power in the southeast. And in fact, the lights did not dim
    when the Corps severely cut releases from the SRB lakes. The Corps
    recently said that they are obligated to meet long-term contract
    obligations for the SEPA (with no drought clause?). Is that why the
    lakes drop in July when rainfall doesn’t exceed above average levels.
    So is hydroppwer production for the SEPA driving the lake levels or is
    hydropower a byproduct of releases to meet other requirements? Will the
    SEPA hydropower contract requirements drive the current study findings
    and plan?
    Now we need to wait for another study before we
    can have changes that we have seen work for our lakes. July was an
    excellent example of
    what should not have to happen to our lakes. And then the Corps fiddled
    with releases to keep us from Drought 1 release reductions. Releases
    finally were lowered,
    but only to 4200, and the lakes keep going down. Too little too late…
    the current drought plan as it doesn’t work for our lakes. Does the
    Deep Savannah Harbor Intramodal Transportation plan figure into the
    excessive releases?
    On a personal note, I have been moving my dock
    out since July 4th, and it is now out @ 100 ft with very little water
    under it…so much for Corps lake level management and the Summer full
    pool guide curve.

    • Interesting comment. I would like to make three observations.

      1) COL Kertis followed the drought manual current at the time of his command during the drought of record in 2007-2009. There was no action he took that resulted in recovery from that drought. We have detailed records showing that 100 percent of the recovery was a result of return to normal rainfall.

      2) You asked what we learned from the 2007-2009 drought of record. We completed an Environmental Assessment in July 2012 (a study) that used data from that drought and implemented the following changes: We incorporated the ability for early response to drought, and lower flows within drought levels, by using percentile of flow of an unregulated river. We added greater restrictions to flows in the winter during drought levels 2, 3 and 4. These actions were described a “definite improvement” by Jerry Clontz.

      We often receive criticism for saying we need to perform studies, but the above changes are a very tangible example of the benefit from studies and the progress that can be gained using empirical data to base our decisions.

      3) I believe your use of SEPA’s statements, taken out of context, leads to an incorrect conclusion. When in drought SEPA’s contracts become a lower priority and we only respond to them through the use of the environmentally-imposed flow restrictions. The SEPA statements you refer to were made at the low point of the drought of record, by your own admission. Granting the context of when those statements were made, they communicated the point that SEPA contracts should not be, and were not, the cause of the decline of the reservoirs after drought conditions emerged. SEPA took a major financial blow buying power on the open market during this time – but they had no other choice because of the drought plan. Their statements at that time cannot be applied, out of context and carte blanche, to all times — specifically a time when lakes are full, and hydropower is a welcome alternative to buying power on the market.

      ~Russell Wicke

      • Jerry Clontz

        I,m not sure we are accomplishing anything with one sided arguments back and forth. Just as in a court of law each lawyer sounds very convincing when you are looking only at their comments. It would be great if the Corps would include a valid stakeholder from the recreation side of things in your meetings but to date that has not happened. Do you really feel that is proper.
        I will make my last comment to this blog with this response. Any further comments Save Our Lakes Now would be delighted to make at meetings where decisions on lake releases are being discussed.
        1) Regarding my comments on Col. Kertis, my point was that none of the improvements we were led to believe MIGHT be forthcoming happened.
        2) I am an engineer and used to the fact that studies are often needed to get enough data for wise decisions. Where we differ is we see the 10 years worth of operating in drought conditions as more than enough data to make major changes to the drought plan. Only a very minor change has been made and the performance during the last drought and now show it to be inadequate. Ten % of normal flow in the Broad is not nearly as reliable as lake levels in determining whether drought measures are needed.
        3) Our statement about SEPA is based on actual conversations with their management. Col.Kertis, like you felt we had inappropriately interpreted their comments. But when he called them standing in our office he found out what we were saying was correct. They want the lakes to be as full as possible because their main need from us is peaking power. So far as your statement that they took a major financial blow during the 2008 drought, their losses were peanuts compared to those suffered by recreation.
        As promised, that is the last comment I plan to make on this blog.

        • Thank you for taking the time to comment again Jerry. You are always welcome.

          I made some inquiries on your testimony in regards to SEPA’s position, and contacted the agency myself. It appears, based on their response, that my above explanation is a true interpretation of their meaning. In order to avoid further misunderstanding, I asked if they would provide an official statement in writing summarizing what they told me. I received the following via email from their Finance and Marketing Administrator:

          “Southeastern Power Administration agrees with the statement that all authorized purposes, hydropower included, benefit from higher lake levels but Southeastern does not support any deviation from the current drought plan. Southeastern along with all basin stakeholders attended workshops to develop the current drought plan when the 4200cfs trigger 1 release was proposed, environmentally studied and impacts weighed. The drought trigger 1 release enables Southeastern to meet contractual commitments without purchasing replacement power for the federal hydropower customers, local municipalities and electric cooperatives. During the current drought of record, fiscal years 2006-2009, to preserve lake levels for all authorized purposes, Southeastern purchased $80.4 million of on-peak replacement energy and $99.6 million of off-peak pump energy. Reversible pump turbine operations are most beneficial in times of drought. ver the same period, the generation resulting from the pump energy purchases eliminated the need to purchase an additional $291 million of on-peak replacement energy.”

          Without the use of pumpback, the 2007-2009 on-peak market rates would have cost SEPA (the U.S. Government) $371.4 million. Visitor spending “value to the nation” ranges year to year from about $350 million to $470 million annually, including drought years. Even with pumpback mitigation, loss is measured in the hundred-million dollar range, especially considering these numbers don’t account for the potential loss of profit that could have been generated without drought restrictions. Therefore, losses are comparable to the visitor spending revenue. These are the numbers, and I believe they are more helpful than the use of subjective metaphors, such as “peanut” comparisons. ~Russell

          • Jerry Clontz

            I said I would not comment further hoping we could change this to a venue that would be productive rather than he said she said. I’ll limit my response to one simple statement. We’ve pleaded with the Corps repeatedly to consider economics when looking at power. Until now they have refused to discuss. In order to be productive we need to look at what it costs in recreational infrastructure and compare that to money actually saved taxpayers (not book value of dollars between suppliers) by not having to buy power elsewhere. We were forced to use a word like peanuts before because you repeatedly refused to discuss numbers. Again, I would like to discontinue one sided discourse.

          • Jerry Clontz

            Sorry I couldn’t stand it. I just had to make one more observation. The dollar value of damages to recreational infrastructure is not just visitor spending. Destruction to real estate values of all the people who bought real estate so they can enjoy the lakes, and losses and even bankruptcies of businesses that provide the recreational infrastructure, are examples of what needs to be included in looking at cost to recreational infrastructure.
            One other item is bothersome. We were told by SEPA that we are one of eight sources of their power and in a drought they simply use power from one of the other sources where there is no drought. Sounds like we are not talking to the same people.

          • Thanks Jerry. For
            the sake of transparency, I actually need to amend the visitor spending range I provided on “value to the nation.” The more accurate range of visitor spending of a given year is within the $500 million range. The other range I provided is less holistic in its treatment of total spending. However, using the more-holistic higher numbers suggests little variance in visitor spending from non-drought years to drought years. FY10 (non-drought year) brought in an estimated $579.8 million in visitor spending. FY11 (partial drought) brought in an estimated $555.5 million, and FY12 (full-drought year) brought in $545.6 million in visitor spending. We don’t yet have FY13 numbers.

            These numbers don’t take into consideration real estate values and specific small-business solvency. The past six years have been rough on businesses all across America due to our economic circumstances. I won’t pretend to know where the bad economy’s influence ends, and drought’s influence begins in areas like real estate. I acknowledge it has been difficult from all sides. My expertise is limited to the Corps’ mission. Many people connect real estate values to recreation, but that is not part of the Corps’ definition of recreation. Meeting our purpose for recreation means ensuring people have access to the water, parks, camping, fishing, etc. Visitation rates, even in drought years, shows that purpose, although impacted, is still achieved.

            Finally, what you were told that SEPA pulls from multiple hydropower sources is correct. Our basin has been spared in times when SEPA could pull from other sources. Likewise, we have assisted other basins by supplying most of the power when we have abundance (such as July 2013) and other basins did not. This proves ineffective when the entire southeast region experiences drought, and all hydropower sources suffer equally. The last two drought periods reflect this. In 2012, drought extended even beyond the southeast when more than 60 percent of the continental U.S. suffered from severe rain deficits.

            We understand drought creates significant strain, and we share your concerns. Let’s work together on making the changes that can be made in a productive manner. ~Russell

          • Jerry Clontz

            The Corps paid Clemson University a substantial sum of money to study the impact of low lake levels on local economics. Their findings disagree with your statements. They show huge losses to local economics and when real estate values were looked at the losses their were staggering. We do not agree that you can simply ignore the value of real estate developed for the purpose of recreation on the lakes. That would be like us saying we want to ignore the cost of power losses.
            Our discussion proves my earlier point. Listening to just one side of an argument does not disclose the truth. As in a court of law both sides have to be covered. We feel strongly that the Corps should include qualified representatives of the recreational infrastructure when discussing and deciding release rates during droughts.
            The very fact that the current drought plan allowed repeated catastrophic drops in lake levels over the past decade says we need to make whatever changes can be justified now and not simply wait years for the results of a study. Any fear that we might make too big a change is unfounded because we could reverse any changes that proved to be unacceptable. The whole idea of engineering is to make the best of whatever science is available at the time and that is not being done with our drought plan.

          • Jerry – you are referring to the “Economic Analysis of Low Water Levels in Hartwell Lake” report, published Nov. 8, 2010.

            I have a copy of it on my desk. The findings of that study substantiate my statements.

            Please understand that we recognize the very difficult position low lake levels can cause for people with property and businesses that depend solely on lake level and activity. The Corps recognizes that those who feel the economic effects the most are those businesses, property owners, and communities located closest to a lake who rely heavily on it for the sole resource for their livelihood and well-being.

            While we acknowledge that impact, the overall findings of the report you reference disagree with your sweeping statement on economics in that region.

            In the executive summary, the report states: “This study demonstrates that Hartwell Lake is not a primary economic driver in the region and provides evidence that the six counties surrounding Hartwell Lake have sufficient economic breadth and depth to weather prolonged low lake levels without realizing substantial declines in their economic well-being,” (pg. i). And it further states: “The estimated economic impacts of low water levels in Hartwell Lake, while measurable, are small when compared to the overall level of economic activity in these six counties. … In the six county region as a whole, the estimated decrease in output resulting from low water levels was about one-tenth of one percent of the value of total regional output,” (pg. iv).

            Nor did the study find a crippling impact on real estate:

            “This analysis also showed that the impact of low lake levels on real estate sales is measureable, but not the primary factor driving the large decline in transactions starting in April 2007,” (pg. 42).
            Considering the housing bust at the time, the study was able to isolate the effects of drought and calculated the impact from low lake levels reduced real estate transactions by a mere 3.4 percent, (pg. 29).

            I would encourage those who have an interest in this study to read it and draw their own conclusions based on the data. The report can be downloaded here: .


          • Jerry Clontz

            I did not even bother to read beyond your first sentence. I am curious now as to whether you are deliberately trying to skew this conversation. You should know as well as I that I am not referring to the report on Lake Hartwell where the corps tied Clemson’s hands so tightly the results were horribly skewed.
            As you must surely know the later study on the Thurmond basin paid for by Duke power blew the lid off the previous report and showed very high losses to local communities. And in the earlier conclusions from that report they showed that low lake levels literally destroyed real estate values. Those findings were not publicized in the final report most likely because of the Corps’ desire to keep real estate out of the conversation. I will not be commenting any further because of your deliberate attempt to destroy my credibility.

          • Jerry Clontz

            I relooked at the statement of mine you were responding to and I inadvertently mentioned an economic study by Clemson paid for by the Corps without pointing out there were actually two studies and the one I was referring to, the second one, was actually paid for by Duke Power rather than the corps. Maybe you are not aware that there were two studies. The first one had a serious flaw. The specifications given Clemson on the Hartwell study made the study a statement on what low lake levels do to a 6 county area rather than the question that needed to be answered which is what economic impact is done around the lakes by low lake levels.
            A second study was done by Clemson paid for by Duke which addressed the real concern of what economic damage is done around the lakes from low lake levels. This study showed huge losses to the surrounding communities. And initially the study group also included the impact of lake level on real estate values showing they were literally destroyed from drops of 10ft and more. I have asked Dr. Jeff Allen of Clemson for the address of the web site containing this later study. I will post that once I receive it.
            Again, this kind of digging to get at the truth can only be accomplished when all sides of the question are represented. You mistakenly quote a study that has nothing to do with the impact of lake level on the recreational infrastructure around the lakes. With both sides represented that kind of mistake can be avoided.

          • Ferris

            Jerry, is there any progress on the link? I have looked forward to reading the study showing the impact of lake levels on real estate values in the Thurmond Basin, but have been unsuccessful in my web search. Am I correct to assume that this is the study you cite frequently about lower lake levels devastating property values? I thought you were referring to the Clemson study paid for by USACE that you mentioned above, which studied losses to the six county economy rather than losses to lake property values, but this reference does not support your claim for reasons you stated above. ~Ferris

          • Jerry Clontz

            Dr. Allen at Clemson was in charge of both studies.. One was paid for by USACE and was poorly defined in terms of answering whether lake level has a significant economic impact because it limited the study to how much it changed the economics of a 6 county area. Clemson was later hired by Duke energy for another economic study specific to what low lake levels do to the communities around Lake Thurmond. This study showed a very large impact in the hundreds of millions of dollars. At one point the study even touched on the impact on real estate showing that drops of 10ft virtually wipe out real estate values. I’m not sure the real estate results were included in the final report.
            I sent an email to Dr. Allen asking for a web address for the Duke study but did not get a reply. I did not follow that any further because I figured no one was waiting on that this long. I will make a point of getting that web address for you this week.

          • Jerry – I believe I’ve acquired the report you are referring to. Please see the link I posted in the above comment, and let me know if that’s the one. ~Russell

          • Jerry Clontz

            Dr. Allen sent me a copy. I was not able to see the link you mentioned so I will just forward a copy of Dr. Allen’s email to you in a separate email to your address above.

            Jerry Clontz

          • I posted it as a comment. It’s in the top comment of this page. If you click on the link there it will download in your browser. ~Russell

          • Jerry Clontz

            I got with Dr. Allen by email and he was surprised to find that they do not have that study filed the way he thought it would be. He promised to get back with me in the near future with a web address.

  • billK

    The arguments back and forth indicate a failure in the authorization process— if the Corps is in charge of managing the water levels yet do not have the authority to easily be proactive or even reactive to changing conditions, the system will always have problems. I have no idea what can or could be done about this….so I’ll both thank the Corps for trying to balance needs, but hope they’ll push for a bit more autonomy on local decisions….

    My current concern is the following: what are the projections for the lowest likely level for Hartwell this winter? I think I saw 7 ft down (653) somewhere, but it’s already nearing 6 ft down from full. It would be helpful for homeowners to have an idea of what minimum level is predicted so we can likewise make plans to prepare for it. Perhaps that info is available– if so it’s not easy to locate.


    • Thanks for your input Bill. The National Environmental Policy Act governs how state and federal agencies must partner together before making changes that will have impacts in other areas of the basin. Although it makes for slow progress to realize improvements, it serves a just purpose to protect everyone’s interests. We have demonstrated that we can improve operation effeciency through this process, and in fact, the Comp Study is an end to that purpose in effect right now. We’re making measureable progress on that presently.

      As for projections, you can find them on our water manger page. Go to . Click on “Declarations” and select the name of the lake in the “Projection” dropdown box.

      It’s even easier to see projections if you have our free mobile app. If you have a mobile device, search “USACE Savannah” in your app store. There is an icon on the home page for projections on each lake lake.

      Hope this helps. ~Russell

      • billK

        Thanks Russell. I knew about the declarations/ projections, but thought maybe there was a longer term projection estimate somewhere that would give some longer term estimates or objectives; for exampel an estimate of the lowest likely draw down for the year?

        • Hello Bill – I apologize for the delay in responding here. I overlooked it due to the other activity. Anything beyond the 10-week projection would be nearly impossible to predict with any accuracy. So we don’t estimate lake level lows and highs. ~Russell

  • Jimmy

    Colonel Tickner, first thank you for your sevice in the military and for taking time to participate in this blog.We started the year with the lakes 3 feet over full pond and now we are 8 feet lower and supposedly in drought conditions. This drought condition was declared on lake level and not on actual rainfall data or NOAA. NOAA shows many, not all, of the counties in the basin at abnormally dry or level DO. Couldn’t find how many inches that is for the year but it’s not many. I had ask a question to Mr Birdwell in a previous post that never got answered why we averaged 6500cfs release rates from when the lake was last full until the first trigger level. Depending on when you look at normal lake level, that average release rate could be as high as 7600cfs. My question remains why did we maintain such a high release rate knowing that we had several months of slightly less than normal rainfall. If those release rates had stayed just above the minimum required, the lakes would probably be full and we would be predicting slightly lower than normal pond instead of 7 feet.
    I have read the post below and when did SEPA making money or a profit become one of the purposes of the lake? I know hydroelectric is a purpose but you can only make as much power as you have water. Letting it out faster than what mother nature provides actually reduces the total amount of power the lake can produce.
    I don’t think that asking you to slow down the release rate when the lake is full requires any kind of approval but at this point it’s too late for this year.

    Thank you

    • Ferris

      Jimmy, I have a problem with your math. On Jan 1, 2014, Thurmond was 7.15 feet above full pool and into flood storage. Hartwell and Russell were 5.70 feet and 1.32 feet respectively into flood storage. The situation occurred because the winter drawdown was targeted at 2 feet rather than the recommended 4 feet, convincingly demonstrating that a drawdown of 2 feet is not sufficient for winter flood storage without any studies being required. Those excessive levels had to be lowered rapidly, and I remember very well the resulting water issues at the lakes and downstream. I fail to comprehend how anyone could want those issues repeated. Yesterday ended with Thurmond 3.70 feet below full pool or 1.14 feet below the Dec 15 winter drawdown level, Hartwell levels were 4.01 and 1.45 feet respectively, and Russell was 0.48 feet below full pool. Current levels will make it easier to meet the flood management goals. ~Ferris

      • jimmy

        Ferris, I think if you look closer you will find the lake was in flood stage because of all the rain late last year, not because anyone made a conscious decision to only lower it 2 feet. Even if they did, the lake worked just like it was intended to do and that is to prevent flooding downstream. The dams were designed to hold more than full pool so getting excess rainfall and getting above this level just requires proper management. So what happens if we are at full pool in the summer and we get the same rainfall. The dams again will work. There is no data that suggest heavy rains occur during the letdown period. If you look back, the largest daily rainfall didn’t occur during the letdown period.
        Doesn’t sound like you live on the lake but what evidence do you have that erosion is worst in the winter? Just take a look at google map that shows the lake down several feet. All those ditches you see in the exposed shore line are from erosion because there is nothing there to hold the dirt. If it were at full pool, the shoreline vegetation would at least help some. And if you believe the wind blowing makes more waves in the winter, just get on the lake on a holiday in the summer and you will quickly see the shoreline erosion is driven mostly by boat traffic.

        • Ferris

          Jimmy, I find it interesting that you decided to discuss other comments rather than respond to my leading statement about math errors and the incorrect pool levels you provided as evidence that the Projection would show levels just below full pool rather than 7 feet below full pool in a few weeks. I took your statement to mean the low point projected to occur around Dec 13 for both pools of interest. Using Dec 15, the first day of the winter level, Hartwell’s projected levels are 6.50 feet below full summer pool, 2.50 feet below full winter pool, and 0.50 feet below minimum normal winter pool or Trigger 1. Thurmond’s projected levels are 6.40 feet, 2.40 feet, and 0.40 feet below the respective targets. Pools are therefore projected to be about 0.40 to 0.50 feet below the minimum desired level. Expecting full summer pools this time of year is futile and contrary to authorized purposes. It certainly appears you are asking that pools be kept as full as possible when three times in the initial post you discussed reducing release rates when the lake(s) are full. Also, your post on the Sept 22, 2014, topic states “What the redline tells me is that the precious water resource has been mismanaged for that period”, 60 years according to you, thereby equating less than full pools with mismanagement.

          There is plenty of data to support a winter drawdown, yet your post reads as though USACE has no reason for the drawdown and it appears that you do not recognize winter drawdown levels as valid. As previously posted by USACE, changing these levels will literally take an act of the US Congress and the approval of other US and state government agencies. Science and experience agree that the drawdown is required for heavier winter rainfall in combination with lower transpiration and evaporation rates. There are links on the water management home page to reports and studies covering many water management topics, including at least one that includes winter shoreline erosion. With easy calculations, you could have learned that average rainfall for the Hartwell, Russell, and Thurmond basins from Dec through Mar ranges from 13.5% to 20.6% higher than average rainfall from April through Nov, with Thurmond having the highest ratio. Weather prediction is not reliable beyond a few days, so using averages is the only viable option.

          I have looked very closely at the event from late last year, understand what I see, created a model, and discussed it with a USACE water manager this summer. The water manager told me that “some political influence” was applied last fall to keep Hartwell about 2 feet above the winter drawdown curve. The plan was for Thurmond to drop about 2 feet below the winter drawdown curve in compensation, presumably on the rising curve. However, Thurmond was also kept 2 feet above the winter drawdown curve. The rainfall events occurred before the Thurmond portion of the plan was ready for execution. The result was weeks of high water at the lakes and downstream, causing problems with docks upstream and downstream, and preventing access to some popular downstream areas. I expect that will not happen again anytime soon. ~Ferris

          • jimmy

            The reason I didn’t address your math point is that I don’t like telling people they are wrong on this blog. My reference was to full pond which is 330 year round. The water manual lowers the lake 4 feet in the winter but that doesn’t change what full pond is. You were also wrong making the assumption I was making any reference to the winter draw down in this post. My only point was that we start the year well over normal, even more so with your math, and the best we can manage this resource is to force it into drought level almost a month before we are supposed to start lowering the lake even though NOAA doesn’t list the basin in a drought. My question remains is why did we release an average of 6500 cfs from late March thru the time we hit drought level 1. You were correct that I did not take the 4 foot drop into consideration on the projection.
            The erosion issue was debunked by several replies with no answer from USACE. Erosion occurs whether we let the lake down or not and it surely isn’t more prevalent in the winter. If there is a post or evidence shown somewhere, please let me know where. Also, your 20% calculation equals about 1 inch of rain since the monthly average is around 5 inches. I don’t believe 1 inch will fill up 4 feet of lake. Take out March and I suspect the average is even less since it is the wettest month and we are filling the lake back up at that point.
            As I said above , I don’t like using this site as a battleground but only to ask engineering questions about why things are done. If my post was misinterpreted, I apologize.

          • Ferris

            Jimmy, it should be clear in my post that I was not assuming you were referencing the winter drawdown, but rather that you do not appear to recognize the winter drawdown. I referenced the winter drawdown in my math because that is Full Pool, which is defined as the top of conservation storage. Click on Pool Schematic on the water management home page and you will find a schematic that shows the current full pool. Full Pool yesterday was 328.43 feet for Thurmond. Full Pool for Thurmond is not 330 feet year round. Using pool or pond is semantics. Here is the link.

            Understanding the extreme difference between winter and summer evaporation and transpiration rates, with the effect of more winter precipitation over the whole basin, contributes to accepting the winter drawdown as necessary to fulfill the flood mitigation purpose of the projects. It is not just the 0.7 inches of precipitation each month for four months, it is that none of the precipitation is absorbed as readily in the ground and that trees are dormant and not transpiring as much water to the air. The resulting runoff from an inch of precipitation fills the lakes much faster in the winter than in the summer. All four months through March are included for the very reason that they contribute to the lakes refilling. There are blog topics dedicated to the subject.

            One final point. A claim is not debunked simply because USACE does not answer. ~Ferris

          • Ferris

            Shoreline Erosion
            I try to avoid multiple links to other sources, but you asked.

            1. FAQ, Q30 states that following the winter drawdown guide curves helps prevent shoreline erosion from common high winter winds.

            2. Refer to the 01/31/2011 Topic “Managing reservoir levels has its ups-&-downs”. Jason Ward said, “The water level targets are lower in the winter to protect the shoreline and to prepare for typical spring flooding.” and “Seasonal high winds in the winter and spring if combined with high surface levels would lead to shoreline erosion and add silt to the reservoirs”. Water managers are experts in hydrology and have studied shoreline erosion because it is an inherit problem of artificial lakes.
            There were no replies to this topic.

            3.a. Refer to “Adaptive Management of Environmental Flow Restoration in the Savannah River” by J.M Ward and A.W. Meadows in 2009. 7 Pages

            There was no winter drawdown in 2004 or 2005 for environmental related river pulse testing.
            Page 4, Item 3. Results: “There was some shoreline erosion damage reported by USACE because of higher than average pools due to winter rain events and wind driven wave run up.”

            Jason Ward is an expert. He has studied the problem, experienced the problem, and written about the problem. If he says there is a problem, then count on it being a problem.

            3.b. “RESTORING ECOLOGICAL FLOWS TO THE LOWER SAVANNAH RIVER: A COLLABORATIVE SCIENTIFIC APPROACH TO ADAPTIVE MANAGEMENT” published in 2007 by several authors, including Jason Ward. This is a precursor to 3.a.

            4. “Shoreline Erosion and Its Potential Control on a Multi-Purpose Reservoir” by Bruce K Ferguson, UGA, in 1998.

            This document is primarily about creating shoreline protection.
            See Page 2. “The significant erosive agent on Thurmond Lake’s shores is the energy of wind-driven waves on the lake itself.” and “Although the erosive force of boats wakes is real, they occur irregularly in space and time and are typically short in duration. Consequently, for the lake in general, their cumulative erosive effect is small”.

          • Ferris

            Flow Rates
            A moderator will require input from a water manager to be confident about the reasons for the release rates.

            Here are my observations, starting in March as listed in your reply to the 09/22/2014 topic.
            – March had an average release rate of 8,475 CFS. It appears the purpose was to get out of flood storage to fulfill the flood mitigation goal of keeping Thurmond below summer full pool or 330 feet.
            – April release rates averaged 9,834 CFS. A stated objective was to keep Thurmond near a constant spawn level and below 329.5 feet for gate repairs.
            – May release rates averaged 5,730 CFS for reasons similar to April.
            – Summer release rates were 5,138 CFS in June, 6,103 CFS in July, and 5,812 in August.

            On June 28, Thurmond fell below the 329.5 feet gate repair target for the summer, coincidental with higher summer peak demand and higher evaporation rates. On June 25, Hartwell dropped below 660 feet for the summer.

            It appears to me that release rates of concern begin in July. I think Billy Birdwell did a great job of answering your question on the referenced topic. After accepting the winter drawdown as a necessity, it makes sense to use the available water when it most benefits peak loads, which are in the summer. My power bill has a line item for Nuclear Construction Cost Recovery. That line item would be quite a bit larger without peaking projects such as ours, because more and/or larger plants would be required. And they would run less efficiently with the large load swings.

          • scottL

            Thurmond was drawn down to 0.5 feet below full pool for maintenance. It had nothing to do with rainfall.
            The reason there was some flooding in spring was likely due to “maintaining” lake levels during fish spawn, as 2 feet above full doesn’t necessitate large releases unless heavy rain is predicted (as we saw in summer of 2013).
            All other large releases are due to other factors, not insufficient flood storage.

          • Scott – perhaps you can provide an example of commonly needed large releases (e.g. >20,000 cfs) due to a factor outside of limited flood storage. ~Russell

          • ScottL

            There was one day in April of this year that exceeded 20,000cfs that occurred with Thurmond below full pool.
            However, I never used the >20,000cfs to define large, so I would use ALL the days in the Spring (Mar-May) where outflow exceeded 10,000cfs with lake level BELOW full.
            I guess I should have used “larger than normal” releases.

          • Ferris

            Scott, I note you agree with my post that the April and May objectives were to maintain constant levels for spawning and to remain below 329.5 feet for gate repairs. I did not mention rainfall in this post.

            Whether release rates are large is subjective, and your view that the rates in my post are large is helpful. For example, one of our neighbors finds 12K CFS large; however, we do not begin to become measurable affected until average daily rates exceed 15K CFS for a few days. Rates of 20K CFS significantly affects us. We support lower release rates that meet project objectives, in particular flood mitigation.

            Flood mitigation was the initial purpose for considering the series of dams, and it trumps other purposes to this day. Lake levels more than 2 feet above full summer pool initiate notification or convening of the Flood Coordination Committee, depending on whether there is a potential to rise. Historical records indicate that water managers strive to keep levels no more than a few inches above full summer pool. Keeping pools in flood storage limits the capacity to hold unexpected rainfall, increasing the chances of upstream and downstream flooding. ~Ferris

          • Ferris

            Jimmy, I also would rather learn than fight; however, we have competing desires and will have disagreements. I think it is important to be informed for more productive discussions; revealing the primary reason for my responses and challenges. I note your double degree and broad experience, and believe that understanding the posted information is well within your abilities. I suspect that, like most of us, you may benefit from backing away some to view more objectively the needs of other basin users.

            Give and take can be like a pendulum. With so many years of low lake levels, there is a strong tendency to hoard as much water as possible; I understand. However, holding excessive water ultimately places the land of many downstream users underwater for long periods. To help reduce the pendulum swing, I have studied many reports and asked USACE questions to understand reasons for what seem like high release rates, among other topics. I share the learned information on this blog. ~Ferris

      • scottL

        When it rains alot, you get alot of flow downstream. It’s called NATURE. It would have been worse without the lakes.

        • Scott, if you were to apply that logic evenly, during periods of rain deficits you would be able to redirect that candid criticism to the same cause: nature. ~Russell

          • scottL

            I think you do a relatively good job. I just think that too high of a priority is placed on hydropower. I also understand that is not completely under your control. But some things are. I live in an industry where harsh criticism must be accepted and perfection is expected. Don’t take my criticism and suggestions to mean I think the Corps does nothing correctly.

            Here is the part I have a hard time with:
            6 out of the last 7 years the lakes have entered drought level 1 (or were already there) at the end of September or beginning of October. Part of that reason is because Thurmond release rates were kept well above the required level even when the trigger was imminent due to PROMISED hydropower. Yet the promised amount of hydropower does not change from year to year and is highest when the level drops the fastest. The only year it wasn’t this way was when we got tons of rain over the summer.
            Rain wasn’t even that much below normal this year and the trigger was met on the same time frame. Something tells me that we’ve promised too much either downstream (4200cfs minimum) or to the electric companies.

        • Ferris

          The drawdown accommodates increased winter runoff rates and expected average winter rainfall. An insufficient drawdown increases the chances of upstream and downstream flooding. Having reservoirs with flood storage allows us to plan rather than always react to nature. ~Ferris

  • Jerry – is this the Clemson study you are referring to in your comments below? ~Russell

  • Ferris

    Thanks Russell! I spent the weekend studying this report that includes other analysis. I hope these highlights relevant to the discussion on lakefront housing prices near the bottom of this topic will benefit the reader.

    Jerry’s statements similar to ” that low lake levels literally destroyed real estate values” had me expecting extreme and universal losses from low lake levels. Of six counties, only Columbia and Lincoln had a small but statistically significant relationship between the sales price of lakefront homes and lake elevation. Elbert County was “not statistically significant” while McCormick, McDuffie, and Wilkes Counties had insufficient data for modeling home sales prices.

    I disregarded the cumulative impacts caution on page 52 and estimated total losses using integral calculus.

    Models used price direction for listed levels as they fall by apparently another foot or so. The average monthly low of 314′ occurred for Nov 2008, during rapidly declining housing prices. BFP = Below Full Pool.

    Columbia County
    – Figure 2, Models analyzed price peaks at 327′ and 322.5′ with falling prices and at 325.5′ with rising prices, all for falling levels. Prices fell when levels exceeded 331′.
    – Table 31 lists a 0.9%/foot loss for 84.7°F at 7.5′ BFP. My estimated total loss is 4% at 8′ BFP. At 36.5°F and 7.5′ BFP, the loss rate is 0.03%/foot, showing that winter gains recover summer losses at 7.5′ BFP.
    – Page 41, “Overall, this analysis confirms earlier research that there is a small but statistically significant relationship between water level and housing values.”

    Elbert County
    – Figure 3, Models analyzed price valleys at 327′, 325.5′, and 322.5′ with rising prices for falling levels. Prices rose as levels fell to the Nov 2008 low. Prices fell rapidly when levels exceeded 330′.
    – Elbert County Page 46, “All model variations tested reveal lake level variables are not statistically significant.”

    Lincoln County
    – Figure 4, Models analyzed steady prices at 3′ BFP, gradually falling prices at 4.5′ and 7.5′ BFP, and the price valley at 12.6′ BFP with rising prices, all for falling levels. Prices rose gradually as levels fell to the Nov 2008 low. Prices fell rapidly as levels approached full pool.
    – Table 39 lists a 1.3%/foot loss at 12.6′ BFP. My estimated total gain is 47% at 12.6′ BFP. Losses at 12.6′ BFP subtract from my estimated total gain of 48% at 11′ BFP.
    – Page 51, “In this case, decline in sales price are not realized until lake levels are 11 feet or more below full pool.”
    – Page 50, “Similar to Columbia County, results confirm that declining Thurmond Lake water levels can have a positive or negative impact on real estate values within some ranges below full pool.”

    My Observations
    – Models show annual lake level cycles to 8′ or more BFP had no permanent effect on average lakefront housing prices, in spite of diminished esthetics and the very real frustration of challenging to no access from lakefront homes. Drought Trigger 2 ranges from 6′ to 8′ BFP.
    – The small relationship between price and level for only two counties that is sometimes positive and sometimes negative confirms that regional economic conditions dominated values.
    – Raw data show divergent price directions as levels approached the Nov 2008 low.
    – Raw data show prices fell as levels approached or exceeded full summer pool.


  • Ferris

    Figures 2, 3, and 4 help illustrate the discussion below. Red lines identify levels analyzed by the models, green is full summer pool, and magenta is the lowest level reached. Figure 4 has two magenta lines, for the lowest level reached and one for data below the lowest level reached.