COLUMBIA — Lawmakers in South Carolina and Georgia, concerned with lake levels in the Savannah River Basin, are turning their scrutiny to the U.S. Corps of Engineers’ hydropower.
About a dozen Georgia legislators who represent districts on the river met this week with their South Carolina counterparts. The effort is aimed at presenting a united front when they talk to the federal agency. They hope to persuade the corps to make tourism and economic development higher priorities when maintaining the lakes. The basin includes lakes Hartwell, Russell and Thurmond.
Georgia Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, asked whether the Obama administration’s energy agenda has had a harmful effect.
“Do you not remember how much the federal government under the current administration has done away with coal-powered energy production?” he said.
Calling it “total speculation,” Powell said the lakes might be lower than normal recently in part because of a change in the terms of the hydropower contract.
Rather than sell hydropower to utilities, the corps relies on the Southeastern Power Administration, a federal agency based in Elberton, Ga., to market the electricity generated at reservoirs operated by the corps.
“When a lake like Lake Hartwell goes down 16 feet, but they want to blame it all on drought, there’s a lot of issues I think need to be looked at, whether it be water flows or power generation,” Powell said. “I think there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye.”
Corps spokesman Billy Birdwell said Tuesday that nothing has changed with regard to how much hydropower the lakes are expected to produce.
“When we go into drought, hydropower takes a back seat, and water supply and water quality are the things we emphasize the most,” Birdwell said. “As the drought worsens and the reservoir continues to recede, then we cut back (hydropower) even further.”
Powell said whatever the cause of the lower lake levels, the lakes should be managed with a broader scope of priorities.
“It is my goal for this bistate conference to implore our federal elected officials to add to that mission statement of these lakes, tourism and economic development,” he said.
Birdwell said the corps tries to balance the seven priorities set by Congress: maintenance of the water supply, water quality, flood risk reduction, downstream navigation, recreation, hydropower production and environmental stewardship.
South Carolina Rep. Don Bowen, R-Anderson, who organized the meeting, said he would like the economic value of lakes to be prioritized more highly than in the past.
For instance, he said, about five years ago, Lake Hartwell lost the chance to hold a fishing tournament – and an estimated $15 million in commerce – to Lake Murray because Hartwell’s water was too low.
He said that when contracts with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Southeastern Power Administration come up for renewal in 2016, they could come with a mandate: When drought gets bad enough, peak power must be bought from the grid that’s produced from fossil fuels, such as natural gas, as opposed to water.
Bowen said the power could instead come from Duke Energy’s new gas-fired turbines.
“What we want to do is lessen our dependency on hydropower,” the lawmaker said.