Federal Court Tosses Dam License in Favor of Better Protections for the Coosa River
Birmingham, AL—A federal court has unanimously ruled in favor of conservation groups by tossing a harmful license issued to Alabama Power for operation of seven hydroelectric dams on the Coosa River, addressing the longstanding problems the dams have caused for the river for the first time in decades.
On behalf of American Rivers and Alabama Rivers Alliance, the Southern Environmental Law Center has prevailed on appeal filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. The groups charged that the 30-year license violated the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Federal Power Act without adequate environmental studies, without sufficient protections for threatened and endangered aquatic wildlife and habitat, and without requiring Alabama Power to maintain minimum dissolved oxygen levels in the river system for water quality.
“We are thrilled that 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 the Southern Environmental Law Center’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.”
“This important ruling is a powerful example of how essential it is for citizens and conservation groups to be at the table when decisions are made about the health of our rivers,” said Cindy Lowry, Executive Director of the Alabama Rivers Alliance. “Since the relicensing of these dams only happens every 30 to 50 years, we must get it right or the water quality will suffer and we stand to lose even more species. After participating in this process for more than a decade to protect the integrity of the Coosa River for generations to come, we are ecstatic about the outcome of this case and what it means for future dam relicensing projects.”
“Poorly conceived and poorly operated dams are known to cause tremendous damage to rivers and the communities that depend on them—the Coosa River is among the worst examples of how extreme that damage can be,” said Gerrit Jöbsis, Senior Conservation Director with American Rivers. “American Rivers is delighted with the Court of Appeals’ unanimous decision that reins in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and halts the continued impacts that would have occurred under the new federal license.”
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.
Issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the license 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 requesting that the license be rewritten. FERC denied the petition in April 2016, prompting the groups’ appeal.
About Southern Environmental Law Center:
For more than 30 years, the Southern Environmental Law Center has used the power of the law to champion the environment of the Southeast. With over 70 attorneys and nine offices across the region, SELC is widely recognized as the Southeast’s foremost environmental organization and regional leader. SELC works on a full range of environmental issues to protect our natural resources and the health and well-being of all the people in our region. southernenvironment.org
About Alabama Rivers Alliance:
Alabama Rivers Alliance is a statewide network of groups working to protect and restore all of Alabama’s water resources through building partnerships, empowering citizens, and advocating for sound water policy and its enforcement. For more information, please visit www.AlabamaRivers.org.
About American Rivers:
American Rivers protects wild rivers, restores damaged rivers, and conserves clean water for people and nature. Since 1973, American Rivers has protected and restored more than 150,000 miles of rivers through advocacy efforts, on-the-ground projects, and an annual America’s Most Endangered Rivers® campaign. Headquartered in Washington, DC, American Rivers has offices across the country, including several in the Southeast, and more than 200,000 members, supporters, and volunteers. Rivers connect us to each other, nature, and future generations. Find your connections at www.AmericanRivers.org.