Why our requests for lower flows were rejected

Recently the Savannah District sought approval from state and federal agencies to deviate from the current drought plan by keeping outflows at 3,800 cubic feet per second (cfs) until the reservoirs refill to the top of their full summer pools. Many people expressed interest in the outcome of this effort and requested information on which agencies didn’t support the proposed deviation. Stakeholders also wanted to know justifications given for disapproval.

Ultimately we could not get support from all our cooperating agencies to keep flows at 3,800 cfs. For this reason we are now targeting 4,000 cfs in accordance with the drought plan. Although this outcome may be discouraging for upper-basin stakeholders, it is important to understand the cooperating agencies did grant unanimous approval of the July 2012 Environmental Assessment which allowed us to alter the drought plan and reduce flows to 3,100 cfs from Nov. 1 to Jan. 31 in Drought Level 3. If not for this approval, we would have flowed at 3,800 cfs throughout all of this winter.

Our Cooperating Agencies
These are the natural resource agencies who must concur with any changes to the current drought plan:

FEDERAL

  • Department of Interior: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
  • Department of Commerce: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries

STATE

  • Georgia Department of Natural Resources
         – Environmental Protection Division
         – Wildlife Resources Division
         – Coastal Resources Division
  • South Carolina Department of Natural Resources
  • South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control
         – Department of Health and Environmental Control
         – Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management (OCRM)

Where the Chips Fell
The state agencies supported our proposed deviation to temporarily hold the discharge at 3,800 cfs, but we were unable to get the support of the federal agencies. The federal agencies cited these reasons for rejecting the proposed deviation:

  • The Savannah National Wildlife Refuge has observed higher than normal salinities and requires freshwater to assist in filling impoundments for spring shorebird migration.
  • Spring is the timeframe when discharge should naturally increase, thereby facilitating spawning of multiple species of fishes, including anadromous and imperiled species such as American shad, Atlantic sturgeon, shortnose sturgeon and robust redhorse. Reduced flows could affect spawning cues, availability of spawning habitat, and larval survival.
  • Numerous stranded mussels have been observed near the confluence of downstream oxbows (bow-shaped bends in the river) and the main channel of the Savannah River. These mussels are vulnerable to higher mortality rates due to deteriorating water quality conditions and depredation.
  • The preliminary analysis of water quality in oxbows shows dissolved oxygen levels that fall below state standards and that may be harmful to wildlife.
  • Recreational fishing access in oxbows is impaired due to shallow water conditions.
  • The Augusta Canal continues to divert a large volume of water from the Augusta Shoals. A seasonal flow increase according to the existing Drought Plan could potentially benefit shoal-inhabiting fauna, versus the proposed static 3,800 cfs discharge.

What Matters Most
We understand the lack of support for this proposal is a disappointment to our upper-basin stakeholders. When reservoir levels are low, people become very concerned about how much water is released downstream and naturally want to keep outflows to the absolute minimum. It is important to realize, however, that these deviations would ultimately have little impact on the overall reservoir levels. The real solution is a return to normal and consistent rainfall. The last three months of rainfall is convincing evidence demonstrating how important regular rainfall is to reservoirs. We began getting more rain in December. Most of December’s rain didn’t become runoff because the soil needed to be recharged, but by January the soil was saturated and we began seeing a sharp rise in reservoir levels. When we increased outflows from 3,100 cfs to 4,000 cfs in early February, the shift to greater outflows was negligible because we were getting sufficient rainfall and runoff. The graph below demonstrates this:

Hartwell Levels March 2012 - March 2013

 The rainfall we’ve been getting the past three months is a relief but we aren’t out of this drought yet. The five-day forecast is predicting little rain for the next few days but March is typically the wettest month of the year by rainfall. Even though we do remain cautiously optimistic for more rain this month, long-term patterns are the best indication of recovery. The only way we can be assured we are coming out of drought is observance of regular rainfall for more than a year. We will continue to post information on this site and we will remain transparent with you through the process.

Thanks for reading us. ~ Russell Wicke, Savannah District Corporate Communications

About US 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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