That announcement came as Alabama Power entered the final stages of the license renewal process to operate its hydroelectric dams in the river.
According to the conservation group “American Rivers,” Coosa River’s endangered status came from the extinction of species caused by the dams and the number of endangered species today. Also, PCB and mercury contamination caused fish consumption advisories for much of the river and its tributaries.
Much of that contamination came from a General Electric plant in Georgia. The plant stopped using PCB but continues to treat water because of the contaminant’s long lifespan.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, is responsible for renewing Alabama Power’s license to run the dams. The renewal could be issued by the end of this year and license the company for anywhere from 30-50 years.
“The Coosa will serve as a test as to whether federal agencies are committed to environmentally sustainable hydropower,” the American Rivers release stated.
Brandon Glover, spokesperson for Alabama Power, said he found the American Rivers release’s timing strange after the 10-year renewal process nears conclusion.
“There have been countless public meetings with stakeholders and environmental groups who have been able to come in and voice their concerns, make suggestions on how to improve the system,” he said. “I find it kind of odd that they are coming out with this press release after that entire process has concluded.”
Glover also pointed out the hydroelectric dams had provided “clean, inexpensive, renewable energy” for decades in the region.
American River’s release stated federal and state agencies were simply passing along all of Alabama Power’s proposals, without looking at efforts for species recovery in the river.
It also criticized the U.S. Fisheries and Wildlife for being “extraordinarily passive.”
“If FERC’s review of Alabama Power’s other self-prepared documents is any indication, they will do little more than rubber stamp the latest review,” the release stated. “The Fish and Wildlife Service must take a hard look at FERC’s assessment and initiate formal consultation to ensure protection and restoration of the Coosa River and its unique natural heritage for future generations.”
Glover called the accusations false and said the company had worked with all the necessary regulatory agencies during the renewal period.
“That’s totally not true and undermines the entire process and all those that are involved in the process,” he said. “And it’s also important to note that this isn’t just a 10-year process where we write our own ticket.”
“The (FERC) is involved, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is involved, the (Alabama) Department of Conservation (and Natural Resources), the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, all are heavily involved in this 10-year process.”
Glover said no species of wildlife, including those on endangered lists, were declining further at this time.
“All those populations are stable or they are improving,” he said. “There is no species that is languishing on the list.”
Jeff Powell, with U.S. Fisheries and Wildlife, said he has worked with the company on the license renewal for five years. He disagreed with Glover’s assessment of the wildlife, saying “surviving” may be a better term.
“Something is keeping them alive, yes,” Powell said. “In some cases they may be doing OK, but they are not thriving.”
Alabama Power operates six dams along the Coosa River: Henry, Jordan-Bouldin, Lay, Logan Martin, Mitchell and Weiss. It also coordinates with the Carters and Allatoona facilities on the Coosa River Basin.
The dams were built beginning in 1914 (Lay) and building continued until 1974 (Carters). According to American Rivers, the building of the dams caused “the largest mass extinction in U.S. history” of wildlife.
Powell said the biggest impact to the river’s ecosystem was “habitat fragmentation,” when the dams divided the water.
“It doesn’t allow a genetic flow between populations of mussels or fish,” he said. “Another impact is simply placing a dam on a flowing river. That changes the hydrology and the biochemistry of what is going on in the river. It warms it up, it gets deeper and it doesn’t get flushed out of the sedimentation and nutrients. They don’t cycle through as easy.”
Powell said there were more than 25 federally protected species living in the Coosa River today.
“That’s not only aquatic,” he said. “I think there are about 19 or 20 aquatic species, and there are another half a dozen plants and there is one bird species in the Coosa Basin (endangered).”
Powell explained what was being done to help repair the natural environment. He said Alabama Power has approved setting higher dissolved oxygen levels from all of its reservoirs.
All dam operators must meet a state oxygen level requirement in the surrounding water. Powell said the company would now be injecting a higher level of oxygen as the river passes through the dams.
Another aspect of the conservation effort in the re-licensing process was getting a “dead river” refilled.
“A lot of the discharges from the dam go right into another impoundment (dam),” Powell said. “There’s not a lot of area to work with, like a river habitat.”
He said a 21-mile section formerly part of the Coosa River was bypassed by the Weiss Dam. Under the new license, that bypass would now be refilled, adding a new habitat for wildlife.
“We have worked with (Alabama Power), along with the state, to establish a continuous minimum flow there,” Powell said. “In the past they have not been releasing any water into that channel unless they were generating electricity.”
Powell said the 21 river miles could “help tremendously” in terms of enhancing the wildlife by putting a continuous flow of water in the channel again. He added it was a near certainty that requirement would be in the renewal.
“Nothing is final until Alabama Power gets a license,” he said. “So you can’t say it is concrete yet. But it is going to be in there.”