Corps responds to shoreline management concerns

As we expected, the original post last week generated significant attention here on the blog and through email directed to our office. Five issues seemed to stand out which I will address.

Q: “When the Savannah District banned submersible pumps I spent significant funds to comply. Now I must mostly abandon the use of the pump. Why did you make us change if you planned to end their use?”

We ended the use of submersible pumps in March 2011 following reports of significant safety issues. We took the steps to remove submersible pumps immediately because we wanted to prevent any more incidents – safety first. Irrigation did not pose human safety issues so more deliberate consideration ensued.

When we ended submersible pump use the discussion on the legality of irrigation was only just beginning. Ending irrigation followed years of debate within the Corps’ legal and operational communities.

Q: “Why did you announce these changes between Christmas and New Year’s Day? Were you just trying to sneak them out without us noticing?”

Our division headquarters finalized the decision to end irrigation licenses just before the holidays. Our operations managers, the people who work with owners day-to-day, began immediately preparing letters to license holders explaining the changes. In order to give as much notice as we could, we issued the news release announcing the changes before they became effective, albeit, only by days.

Q: “Local water authorities pull water from the reservoirs and sell it. People use the water to irrigate their lawns and gardens. What is the difference between that use and my pulling water directly from the same source for the same purpose?”

This is purely a matter of authority. Congress authorized the use of the reservoirs to store state-owned water for use by local established entities. Cities, counties and water districts have water storage contracts with the Corps of Engineers which allow them to pull water from the reservoirs. Once the water leaves the reservoir under one of these storage contracts, the Corps no longer controls the water. How customers use the water from their local authorities is a local issue.

Without specific permission from Congress to provide water for irrigation, even in seemingly miniscule amounts, the Corps would violate its authority. We manage the reservoirs and store water for the purposes Congress has set. We can’t operate in ways that exceed what Congress authorized. These water supply contracts require the local authority to pay the Corps for the water since the withdrawal is a “loss to the system” for the remaining purposes, such as hydropower and navigation. Once we came to the conclusion we had long exceeded this authority, we had to take steps to make it right.

Q: “Why did you have to make it so sudden? Why not grandfather in those who had held licenses until they transferred the property? I only had a few days’ notice – in winter – to seal my shoreline irrigation lines!”

Corps officials in the South Atlantic Division did not come to this decision lightly. The recent conflicts over consumptive water usage and the so-called tri-state water wars brought many issues to light.

Officials throughout the region searched for a process in which to permit or license this activity in a manner that would be consistent with legal authorities. After several years of fruitless searching for a process that would continue shoreline irrigation, we finally determined we had no legal means to do so. Making the change is necessary to comply with federal law.

While we considered the grandfathering issue, we realized this would simply continue a practice we were not authorized to have started in the first place. Instead, we set the implementation to be at the end of each home owner’s license.

In other words, until your license expires you may continue to use the license. We simply can’t renew it. We made this clear in our news release and in letters to license holders, even if some newspaper stories failed to mention it.

Q: “Why didn’t you ask for public input like you do for other changes?”

We saw this as a legal issue dealing with interpretation of law. The public’s input can’t immediately change our lack of authority. Once we determined we were outside legal authority, there really was no other choice. We can’t simply ignore law.

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 Facebook.com/SavannahCorps
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