From the Commander:
We announced last week that the three reservoirs on the Savannah River reached the second drought trigger level. This means we took immediate action to reduce water discharges from the reservoir system.
As discussed previously with you at meetings and as part of this column, it’s the Corps’ job to manage the entire Savannah River Basin as one system. Our decisions affect Hartwell, Thurmond, Augusta, the Savannah River Site, Plant Vogtle, and many others who depend on the river for their livelihood and well being. The city of Savannah gets 50 percent of its drinking water from the river, as do other municipalities downstream. We don’t take this responsibility lightly nor do we make decisions without careful consideration, consultation, and analysis. We have defined procedures we must follow to protect both people and the environment.
Cities, businesses, and utilities draw from the reservoirs and the river to provide drinking water and support industry—which in turn creates jobs. The states oversee and permit withdrawals from the water system. We do not. Our water managers talk regularly with SC and GA resource agencies on water management in order to gauge needs of upstream and downstream users. In addition to GA and SC, the reduction in water leaving the reservoirs requires the concurrence of the federal resource agencies which are also charged with enforcing numerous federal laws related to water.
The dam and reservoirs were not built solely for lake residents. In fact, Congress authorized them for multiple purposes: flood risk management; hydropower generation; water supply for residents/commercial uses throughout the basin; water quality for environmental stewardship throughout the basin; recreation throughout the basin; and downstream navigation. Project authorization mandates us to achieve a balance between project purposes. In order for any specific project purpose to be designated as a “higher” priority, legislation to amend or change the existing authorizations and cost allocations would have to be initiated and passed by Congress. We understand that many people would like the Corps to operate its reservoir projects differently. Major changes in operation of the reservoirs require careful study of the benefits and impacts associated with the proposed changes. These analyses are typically performed in a Comprehensive Basin Study which produces updated operating rules and revised costs allocations. For example, if reservoirs are kept full during drought for a specific user group, downstream impacts will need to be mitigated and paid for by that user group.
You may have read or heard the suggestion that we set the outflows from Thurmond to 3600 cfs year-round. While initiating a 3600 cfs maximum higher in the pools instead of Trigger Level 3 would conserve water benefiting the upstream users, it would negatively impact the downstream users and the environment. The drought plan attempts to balance impacts to users throughout the basin as drought becomes more severe. Past droughts have shown that prolonged periods of 3600 cfs have caused concern by natural resource agencies indicating detrimental effects on critical habitat downstream of the reservoirs. At some point, drought potentially impacts all users negatively, but the drought contingency plan initiates actions that share the impacts equitably as the pools decline rather than benefiting one group of users and harming another beyond repair. It is important to remind users that it was through their stakeholder input representing various interest groups that established the elevations and magnitudes of the drought triggers.
Simply put, Congress did not authorize “economic impacts” as a purpose for the reservoirs we manage. We must follow the direction of the Congress. To do otherwise would exceed our authority.
Priorities change depending on changing conditions. During a drought, electricity is only generated as a by-product of meeting the downstream flow requirements. Power generation does NOT drive discharges during a drought. Power is generated because we have to let water go downstream for the uses described above.
I hope that this information is helpful and better explains the need to manage the basin as one system.
Col. Jeff Hall
Commander, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District