South Carolina has granted Duke Energy a water-quality certification that clears the way for renewal of Duke’s hydroelectric license for the 225-mile Catawba River.
The hydro license is important because it lets Duke control a public resource – including lake levels, recreational amenities and shoreline structures such as docks – for up to 50 years.
South Carolina’s approval means Duke now waits only on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to extend its license for as much as another half-century.
Duke, whose old license expired in 2008, has urged FERC to “proceed expeditiously” in renewing it. Duke has requested another 50-year license.
License terms were negotiated by Duke, government agencies and advocacy groups over several years and signed in 2006. But they’ve been sidelined by legal snarls that took years more to unwind.
A breakthrough came last July.
Duke reached an agreement with South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control and environmental advocates to improve conditions for four fish species. They include American shad, blueback herring and two endangered species of sturgeon.
Duke’s 11 dams on the Catawba, at least in theory, block migratory fish from swimming upstream to spawn.
Sturgeon, once numerous, have in recent years been documented swimming as far upstream from the Atlantic as Duke’s Wateree dam in Kershaw County, S.C. Wateree is the southernmost of Duke’s dams on the Catawba.
Duke agreed that, during two annual 10-day spawning periods, it would release water from the dam in stable flows that won’t wash away fish eggs. Dams normally release water in surges.
Duke also committed to adjust water releases to periodically inundate the Wateree River floodplain, which is important for herring, and let the water recede in a way that mimics nature.
The company had previously agreed to install systems to trap and truck shad and herring around the Wateree dam.
In 2009, South Carolina denied Duke a certification that its hydroelectric dams wouldn’t hurt the Catawba’s water quality. The denial came as the Carolinas battled over water rights to the Catawba, a fight that went to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The issue remained in the middle of a legal tug-of-war until the 2014 agreement.
FERC’s renewal of the hydro license would unleash millions of dollars in recreational upgrades and conservation spending by Duke. The money was part of the license terms negotiated nearly a decade ago.
Duke will donate and conserve 2,455 acres along the Catawba for public recreation and conservation, and provide up to $16.1 million for state agencies to buy more land and improve wildlife habitat.
If Duke is awarded a 50-year license, the company will protect another 274 acres and donate an additional $3 million.