A federal agency says its defense of two endangered fish species won’t stand in the way of a new Catawba River hydroelectric license for Duke Energy, now four years overdue.
A biological opinion by the National Marine Fisheries Service, posted online Wednesday, said Duke’s dams won’t jeopardize the existence of endangered shortnose sturgeon and Atlantic sturgeon.
The opinion is a draft that will be open to public comment before it’s made final. But it appears likely to end a stalemate over the fish that has helped block renewal of Duke’s 50-year Catawba license, which expired in 2008.
“This is a very significant milestone in the process to receive the final license for the Catawba-Wateree,” said Duke spokeswoman Erin Culbert. “We did get one step closer.”
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Duke also needs to resolve a second, unrelated issue before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission can issue a new license. That issue, over a South Carolina water-quality permit, is before the S.C. Court of Appeals.
Sturgeon are ancient species that swim up coastal rivers to spawn. Dams have blocked their passage as overfishing and water pollution decimated their numbers.
Yet two shortnose sturgeon swam within 4 miles of Duke’s Wateree Dam, its farthest-south on the Catawba, last year.
Duke is still reviewing the lengthy opinion, Culbert said, but it appears to accept the river flows and lake levels that Duke and other parties had proposed to FERC.
Duke has agreed to install systems to trap and truck two other migratory fish species, American shad and blueback herring, around the Wateree Dam. But the fisheries service did not recommend that it do the same for sturgeon.
The dam will continue to block the sturgeons’ way up the Catawba, the biological opinion said, but trying to get them around the dam may cause them more harm. It said larger water releases from Duke’s dams and efforts to improve water quality, spelled out in the proposed hydro license, will create better spawning habitat.
Government agencies and conservation groups that have agreed with Duke on new license terms have chafed at the delays in granting a new license. That’s because many of them will benefit once it’s approved.
In addition to steadier releases of water from its dams, Duke has agreed to return water to the Catawba’s Great Falls in South Carolina for the first time in nearly a century.
Duke will also transfer 1,255 acres to the Carolinas for recreation and conservation, give up to $12.3 million to state agencies for more land and spend another $5 million to improve wildlife habitat.
In addition to resolving the sturgeon issue, Duke needs a certification from South Carolina that its hydro operations won’t harm the Catawba’s water quality.
The S.C. Board of Health and Environmental Control denied the permit in 2009, overruling its staff. South Carolina was before the U.S. Supreme Court at the time, suing North Carolina over water rights to the Catawba.
Two environmental groups have also fought the certification, saying Duke would release too little water downstream under the terms of its new license.
An administrative law judge ruled in Duke’s favor in 2010. South Carolina and the environmental groups appealed, and the S.C. Court of Appeals heard oral arguments last week. A decision is expected in four to 12 weeks.