The Savannah District has received many e-mails from residents of the Hartwell and Thurmond communities expressing their concerns about the current state of the reservoirs. Some have asked us to make radical changes to the release rates from the Savannah River Basin system. Others have asked us for a better understanding of the rationale we use to manage water in the three-reservoir system.
Contrary to some requests, we simply can’t step in and make radical changes without following set processes established by laws enacted by Congress. Those processes often take great amounts of time and resources. While we work with the states on some longer term changes, we’re also trying to make some near-term changes to address the concerns of stakeholders in the upper basin.
We understand the drought plan needs to be re-evaluated since it was last updated in 2006, to include data from the Drought of Record of 2009. The best way to do this is to complete the Savannah River Basin Comprehensive Study, which would provide a thorough, scientific analysis of environmental and economic impacts throughout the basin. I can’t stress enough how important this study is to the basin. Our team is committed to seeing this study through, and we have federal funding set aside for our portion of the next increment of the study. We continue to work with the states to resolve cost-share issues and find a way to move forward.
The Savannah District also is working on implementing some limited flexibility (via an Environmental Assessment) to the drought plan that would allow us to reduce outflows even more during certain drought conditions, and even less during winter months. But making changes like this requires agreement among the state and federal agencies. We’re still evaluating comments and working to reach an agreement among the agencies before we can implement these changes. We will do everything within our power to lower flows further; however, we must follow a process and coordinate with other agencies. We will provide an update on the Environmental Assessment as soon as we make a final decision.
If you’re looking for a detailed explanation of our water management actions and processes, I invite you to read our Frequently Asked Questions, available on our website. This is an excellent resource for anyone who seeks a better understanding of how we operate all three reservoirs as one system.
Our decisions are based on balancing needs across the entire basin—from the headwaters of Lake Hartwell down to the Savannah Harbor. Congress directed us to manage the three reservoirs as a system for water quality and water supply, recreation, fish and wildlife protection, flood risk management, downstream navigation, and hydropower production.
It’s also important to note that as soon as we enter drought status at the reservoirs, hydropower production takes a back seat. This seems to be a common misconception in the public. We often receive comments asking us why we have to meet our hydropower obligations when the reservoirs are in drought.
As soon as the reservoirs are declared in a drought status, we only generate power as a byproduct of moving water downstream to meet flow requirements. The Southeastern Power Administration then uses replacement energy from outside sources to meet their remaining contractual needs.
Our pump back capability at the Russell Dam—which allows us to re-use the same water over and over to generate power—helps to compensate for the reduction in hydropower at Hartwell and Thurmond. We recently awarded a contract to complete some much-needed repair work on at the Russell Power Plant. When complete, this will allow us to operate all four pump back units. Having this capability is even more critical during hot, dry summers, when demands for water and electricity are high.
We’ve heard concerns from stakeholders that completion of the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project would require the Savannah District to release more water from the reservoirs for navigation purposes. We will not change the operation of the reservoirs. Navigation will remain an authorized purpose of the reservoir system, but deepening the harbor would not change our water management actions as they relate to navigation.
I’d also like to highlight that, even during times of drought, we’ve seen some outstanding recreation events this year. The Thurmond Project recently hosted the USA National Cycling Time Trials on June 21, serving as a qualifying event for the Olympics. The Russell Project held yet another annual Kid’s Fishing Derby; and the Hartwell Project hosted large fishing and wakeboarding tournaments this year, including the Wal-Mart FLW Fishing Tour. A big thanks goes to our Corps staff who coordinate these special event permits.
Speaking of recreation, summer is here, and with it comes an increase in outdoor recreation throughout the basin. Please, be smart on the water this summer. Avoid drinking alcohol while operating any watercraft, always wear a properly-fitting life jacket, and take extra precautions to stay hydrated and protect yourself from the summer heat.
Our national headquarters launched a water safety campaign this year called “Are You Next?” It may sound grim, but it’s a good question to ask yourself when you’re out on the water. Will you or a family member be the next victim of a drowning on one of our lakes? Take a good look around and make sure that you and your loved ones are being safe and taking the proper precautions. And as always, HAVE FUN!
Col. Jeff Hall
Commander, USACE Savannah District