Augusta has spent 10 years and $2.3 million trying to relicense its canal with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission - but on Friday the city threatened to withdraw its application unless a compromise can be reached over certain environmental issues.
Without the city's participation, the canal's future use could undergo a change, officials say.
"Augusta has spent considerable sums in preparing necessary studies, an application, amendment to the application, an operating plan, and in attending many meetings and discussions trying in good faith to resolve issues relating to Augusta's application," wrote Jim Wall - an attorney representing Augusta - in a letter to commission Secretary Magalie Salas.
The cumbersome relicensing process has stirred disagreements between Augusta, which uses the canal as a municipal drinking water source, and environmental agencies concerned that too much water is diverted from the Savannah River into the canal at the expense of the ecologically important Augusta shoals.
The shoals, which harbor endangered plants such as the Rocky Shoals Spider Lily and provide habitat for sturgeon, robust redhorse sucker and other fish, would have insufficient flows during droughts under Augusta's plan, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and conservation groups including the Sierra Club, Coastal Conservation Association and American Rivers.
Although Augusta uses portions of the diverted flow for drinking water, a much larger percentage of the canal's flow is used to power turbines that provide hydromechanical power to pump raw water from the canal to the city treatment plant on Highland Avenue.
Because those pumps use hydromechanical power - and do not engage in the business of generating electricity through hydropower - Augusta technically does not even need the energy commission's license, Mr. Wall wrote.
During past negotiations, Augusta had worked out an agreement it believed would be satisfactory with the Georgia and South Carolina departments of natural resources, which wanted guaranteed minimum flows in the shoals during drought periods.
The agreement included stipulations in which Augusta would provide fish passage devices at the diversion dam that spans the Savannah River near the canal headgates, according to a letter of intent sent Thursday to federal authorities by Assistant Director Drew Goins of the Augusta Utilities Department.
Mr. Goins noted in his letter that all three mills on the canal - Enterprise, King and Sibley - have their own hydropower licenses.
"Those businesses will continue to be operating without the necessity of licensing the Canal and Diversion Dam, or at least they will be in a position to take over the dispute as to whether or not a FERC license is needed for the Augusta Canal project," he wrote.
Mr. Wall wrote that unless Georgia and South Carolina authorities accept the settlement agreement by Feb. 1, and notify the energy commission that it is acceptable, Augusta will withdraw its relicensing efforts.
AUGUSTA ISN'T THE FIRST entity to complain that the commission's relicensing procedures, which trigger the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and a host of other federal laws, are too cumbersome.
The American Hydropower Association, a trade association, characterized the process as "exceedingly complex, needlessly fragmented and frustratingly inefficient" during congressional testimony aimed at simplifying the program.
The association even contended it is sometimes easier to relicense a nuclear facility than a hydropower project.
Celeste Miller, the energy commission's spokeswoman, said the agency has worked to streamline the relicensing process by developing less-complex applications. However, such shortened programs aren't suitable for all projects.
"There are many environmental laws we are required to follow," she said. "We started off years ago with one process, very long and traditional. Since then, the commission has tried to put in place more efficient procedures."
Although Augusta contends it might not need a commission license, failure to renew its old one could create problems.
Ms. Miller - speaking in general and not specifically about the Augusta Canal - said an unlicensed facility could be considered abandoned or defunct, opening the door for someone else to file an application to claim and operate it for water power.
Augusta Utilities Director Max Hicks said it would be unlikely the Augusta Canal could be deemed as an abandoned facility because of its importance on several fronts.
"It seems, for every action we take, there's an equal and opposite reaction from certain environmental agencies," he said. "You can see we've spent millions in studies and engineering, and that's a lot of money. Even the legal fees are considerable, and there isn't even a lawsuit."
Although the outcome of the ongoing disputes likely won't be known for months - or years - Mr. Hicks said Augusta is likely to continue operating the canal in the city's best interest.
"I don't know where it will end, how it will end, or even if it will end," he said. "It may end up before a judge and jury. I just don't know."
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- The Augusta Canal is fed from water diverted from the Savannah River at the canal headgates. The canal's flow provides drinking water for city residents and hydropower at King, Sibley and Enterprise mills.
- The Federal Power Act requires Augusta to license its canal and diversion dam with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission because of its impact on the nearby Savannah River.
- The city's 50-year license, granted in 1929, expired in 1979. The city began relicensing efforts in 1995 and completed its application in 2003.
- The relicensing request has stirred debate between environmental agencies, who want more water kept in the river, and the city, which believes its plan best balances municipal needs with the environment.
- Augusta, which has spent $2.3 million in legal and consulting fees on its application so far, threatened Friday to withdraw its application unless a compromise can be reached by Feb. 1.