Duke Energy gets new Catawba license

Water pours into the Catawba River from the bottom of Lake James at the Linville Dam near Morganton.
Water pours into the Catawba River from the bottom of Lake James at the Linville Dam near Morganton. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Duke Energy finally won federal approval Wednesday for a renewed hydroelectric license for the Catawba River after a seven-year wait.

The retroactive agreement became effective Nov. 1.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approval allows Duke to manage the 225-mile river for 40 more years. Duke had hoped for an extension of up to 50 years.

The license is expected to unleash a wave of construction of recreational amenities that Duke negotiated with government agencies, advocacy groups and residents over a three-year period.

Duke also has committed to conserve land along the Catawba and to build passages to help migratory fish get around its Wateree dam in South Carolina.

“We’re glad to see this thing finally issued,” said Vicki Taylor, executive coordinator of the Catawba-Wateree Relicensing Coalition. “This is a well-balanced, well-negotiated agreement for the region.”

The nonprofit coalition began in 1999 and aimed to help restore the area’s natural, cultural and economic resources during the re-licensing process.

Duke operates 13 hydroelectric stations and 11 reservoirs on the Catawba. Its predecessor company began making electricity on the river in 1904.

Duke’s Catawba-Wateree hydro project represents 25 percent of the company’s power-generating capacity in the Carolinas, according to a Duke Energy statement. It also provides drinking water for 2 million people.

“The significance of the new license cannot be overstated,” said Steve Jester, vice president of water strategy, hydro licensing and lake services for Duke Energy. “Receiving the new license ensures the Catawba-Wateree River will continue to support and sustain communities across the Carolinas for at least the next 40 years.”

It also gives Duke control of lake levels, recreational amenities and shoreline structures, such as docks.

Among other elements, the agreement calls for:

▪ $16.1 million for land conservation.

▪ More than $4 million to develop public recreational amenities.

▪ 2,455 acres in conveyances and easements for conservation, recreation and water-quality protection.

▪ New scheduled recreation flow releases from several dams.

Taylor said the agreement calls for regular planned releases of water through South Carolina’s Great Falls area. That portion of the river hasn’t flooded in more than 100 years.

“It’s going to be a great opportunity to kayak,” Taylor said. “They’re going to see water again.”

The previous 50-year federal license expired in 2008. Legal challenges, including a dispute with South Carolina environmental regulators, and concern over Duke’s impacts on endangered sturgeon contributed to the long delay in renewing the license.

Earlier this year, South Carolina granted Duke a water-quality certification that cleared the way for renewal of the federal license.

That followed an agreement with state regulators and environmental advocates to improve conditions for four fish species: American shad, blueback herring and two endangered species of sturgeon.

The agreement entailed altering releases of water from the Wateree dam in ways that benefit spawning fish. Duke had previously agreed to install systems to trap and truck shad and herring around the Wateree dam.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender