Conservation Groups Urge Stronger Protections for Alabama’s Coosa River as Federal License is Reissued for Hydroelectric Dams
Alternative Dam Operations May Provide Environmental Benefits
Conservation groups filed a federal rehearing request on July 19 over the reissued license for a series of Alabama Power hydroelectric dams on Alabama’s Coosa River. In order to reverse the dams’ significant damage to the Coosa – once one of the most biologically diverse rivers in the world – the groups have asked for more thorough environmental studies to ensure protections are in place to balance the river’s ecological needs with hydropower production.
“The Coosa River dams continue to play an important role providing power, but the river is also one of the state’s most prized natural resources, and we must balance both those needs,” said Catherine Wannamaker, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Alternative dam operations exist to better restore and prevent future damage to the Coosa, so we want to make sure this licensing process establishes reasonable protections.”
On June 20, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission reapproved a license for the seven Alabama Power dams that span 225 miles along the Coosa River. The license will regulate dam and reservoir management activities for the next thirty years. On behalf of Alabama Rivers Alliance and American Rivers, the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a petition for a rehearing in part because the federal agency did not complete a thorough environmental impact statement as part of the relicensing.
Construction of the dams on the Coosa River wiped out more than 30 freshwater species, one of the biggest extinction events in North America during the 20th century. The decades that followed have seen a continuing decline in biodiversity and the loss of endangered species and habitat due to the dams’ impact on the flow of water and the river’s lack of oxygen. Today, numerous additional freshwater species in the project vicinity are listed as endangered or threatened by federal agencies.
The reissued license fails to require sufficient mitigation measures that would prevent further loss, let alone recover the species, such as establishing adequate minimum flow levels and sufficient levels of dissolved oxygen at the dams, new processes to maintain the dams without drawing down the water level, and other measures, such as fish passage to help migrating species.
“This is a rubber stamp approval of a license issued nearly six decades ago, before we had a full understanding of the dams’ impacts on the Coosa River or the technology to better protect against those impacts,” said Mitch Reid program director for Alabama Rivers Alliance. “This license, which will determine the health of the river for at least the next three decades, is too important to shortchange the environmental review process.”
While officials have touted recent restoration measures by pointing to the recovery of the Tutolama snail on a small section of the river, after Alabama Power was required to release more water from one of the dams, dozens of species remain at risk.
“The federal licensing process exists to make sure the river is managed as a win-win for hydropower, homeowners and businesses along the lakes, and the environment – in this case, it failed to do that,” said Gerrit Jöbsis, southeast regional director for American Rivers. “This important and rich ecosystem continues to decline. We have a long way to go, but there are reasonable measures Alabama Power can take now to leave a healthier Coosa River for future generations to enjoy.”