A balanced conversation on water management

From the Commander:

Back in October I had a whirlwind tour of the upper Savannah River Basin and met with a number of stakeholder and media groups representing a wide array of interests, including hydropower, lake community, business, recreation, veterans, environmental and natural resources. During my visit, stakeholders had an opportunity to voice their concerns and interests. The meetings also gave me a chance to share my command philosophy and approach for balancing the water needs of stakeholders in the basin.

During my discussion, I emphasized that rain and drought are natural occurrences. Even before we built the three Corps of Engineers dams on the upper Savannah River, this region would go through periods of heavy rain and drought. The Corps’ reservoirs have enabled many communities to exist and grow, even during periods of drought. We have experienced two new record breaking droughts in the last 10 years and have found it necessary to adapt to meet these extreme events. Through the Savannah District’s multipurpose management of these limited water resources, we attempt to achieve a balance among the many needs of the region.

It’s important to remember that the Savannah River basin watershed is managed as one system – from the headwaters to the Atlantic Ocean. Congress authorized these reservoirs as multi-purpose projects. The authorized purposes include flood risk management, hydropower, recreation, water supply-water quality, navigation, and environmental stewardship. The water management staff in the Savannah District strives daily to meet as many needs for as many users as possible throughout the Savannah River Basin. We know that the actions we take affect many people directly. We take that responsibility very seriously.

It may seem wise—to some—to retain as much water as possible in the reservoirs. However, to do so would impose a heavy hardship on many thousands of people who rely on the Savannah River. Below Thurmond Dam various municipalities, industries, counties, utilities, and wildlife depend on adequate flows of the river. These include the cities of Augusta, Ga.; North Augusta, S.C.; and Savannah, Ga., and Jasper County, S.C., among others. In addition nuclear and fossil fueled power plants along the Savannah River must have an adequate flow of river water to continue to provide electricity to a vast swath of the lower Savannah River Basin.

However, when we enter the first drought level, we reduce outflows from the reservoirs. This reduction has environmental impacts on the downstream communities, the estuary and the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge. As we move into more severe drought levels, we further reduce outflows causing additional impacts to the downstream environment. Stopping flows from the dam all together would have a catastrophic impact on many thousands of people and would likely kill endangered species.

There seems to be a consistent misconception about hydropower production. During drought, hydropower takes a backseat. During droughts we generate electricity only as a by-product of meeting downstream needs. We must send water downstream to meet needs in the lower basin so we pass that water through the power plant getting a double benefit from the same water.

While we understand the frustration businesses and property owners around the reservoirs express, we must strive to meet all the purposes of the reservoirs as set by Congress. We also know that droughts end and the reservoir levels return to normal. Then, and only then, do we move hydropower out of the backseat but we never let it “drive.” The professional water managers, planners and operators who work for me act as my GPS, but I drive. Hydropower is a passenger.

We will use this newsletter to explain our water management approach to stakeholders and others who have an interest in the Savannah River Basin. I encourage you to share it with your friends and neighbors in hopes that we can balance our conversation and work for all who rely on the river.

Col. Jeff Hall
Commander, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District

About U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District oversees a multimillion 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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