Court tosses outdated dam license on Alabama’s Coosa River

Alabama Power’s dams along the ecologically rich Coosa River have contributed to one of the largest extinction events of the 20th century. (© Getty)

A federal court has unanimously ruled in favor of conservation groups by throwing out a harmful, antiquated license issued to Alabama Power for operation of seven hydroelectric dams on the Coosa River. This move, for the first time in decades, addresses the longstanding problems caused by the dams.

On behalf of American Rivers and Alabama Rivers Alliance, SELC prevailed on an appeal filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The groups charged that the 30-year license violated the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Federal Power Act because it lacked adequate environmental studies, sufficient protections for threatened and endangered aquatic wildlife and habitat, and requirements for Alabama Power to maintain minimum dissolved oxygen levels in the river system for water quality.

We are thrilled the court clearly understands that improving the license conditions is the only viable option to restore the health of the Coosa River and ensure better protections for water quality and wildlife,” said Gil Rogers, Director of SELC’s Georgia and Alabama offices. “After decades of degrading one of Alabama’s greatest rivers, it’s high time to bring these essential safeguards into the modern era.”

Once among the most biodiverse rivers in the world, the construction and operation of these hydroelectric dams spanning 225 miles along the Coosa River caused one of the most massive extinction events in the 20th century, wiping out more than 30 freshwater species. The river continues to support a number of fish, mussel and snail species, but many of them are teetering on the brink of extinction as a result of significant ecological degradation. 

The license, issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), would have dictated dam and reservoir management operations on the river for the next 30 years. The groups filed a petition in June 2013 with FERC, arguing that that the agency did not complete a thorough environmental impact statement as part of the relicensing and requested the license be re-written. FERC denied the petition in April 2016, prompting the groups’ appeal.

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