Duke Energy wants longer license to manage Catawba River

Anglers try their luck in the roiling waters of the Catawba River near Lake James.
Anglers try their luck in the roiling waters of the Catawba River near Lake James. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Duke Energy, which last week was granted a new hydropower license to manage the Catawba River, will ask that its term be extended from 40 to 50 years.

Duke agreed, during three years of public negotiations over the license, to help protect additional land in the river basin if the government granted a 50-year license.

In that case, Duke would double the $3 million it agreed to donate to state agencies to buy land for conservation. It would also add conservation easements on 274 acres in addition to the 2,455 acres it agreed to protect.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission instead handed Duke a 40-year license, not the longer term the company wanted.

“The (agreement) was negotiated among 70 regional parties to create a balanced and sustainable future for the Catawba-Wateree River, public and natural water uses and community needs,” the company said in a statement. “We want to fulfill that vision and achieve the benefits all parties worked for” in the negotiations.

Duke and other parties to the license, including government agencies, have 30 days in which to ask for a rehearing on any part of it. Duke said it is reviewing the 157-page license for any other clarifications or corrections it might seek.

FERC says license terms are based on how much new construction or measures to protect the environment a new license requires.

Extreme measures merit a 50-year license, FERC said. But the agency judged Duke’s efforts – which include fish passages around dams, increased water releases downstream and higher oxygen levels in water – to be only moderate and worthy of a 40-year term.

Duke says it will spend about $100 million to meet those obligations.

“We believe the requirements in the new license and the (agreement) are at least equal to other hydro projects which received 50-year new licenses,” spokeswoman Jennifer Jabon said.

FERC would not characterize how often it grants rehearings for hydro licenses or extends their terms.

The Catawba supplies one-quarter of Duke’s generating capacity in the Carolinas. FERC values the electricity it generates at $89 million a year and estimated Duke’s costs at $70 million annually.

Duke has already put in place some of the license requirements, such as increased water releases.

The company has spent $13 million to protect nearly 5,400 acres in the Catawba basin. That includes acreage at the headwaters of Lake Rhodhiss, on Lake Norman in Catawba County and near Lake Wateree.

Other portions, including dozens of recreational projects, will unfold over several years. Among those projects are new swimming areas, canoe and kayak access points, camping sites and trails.

Whitewater will boom through the Great Falls of the Catawba, in South Carolina, for the first time in more than a century. Duke also agreed to lease 900 acres around Dearborn Island, where a historic arsenal was built, for development as a South Carolina state park.

Work won’t start on the recreation projects for at least a year, after Duke files a separate recreation plan with FERC.

Within five years, Duke expects to: finish work on up to 55 of 89 recreation areas; give $4 million to help local governments develop recreation areas; donate $3 million for land conservation; and set aside 2,455 acres for conservation, recreation and to keep water clean.

FERC rejected Interior Department recommendations that Duke be forced to preserve shoreline around highly developed reservoirs such as Lake Norman and protect a 50-foot buffer zone around its 225-mile project. The agency called the recommendations unnecessary, expensive and impractical.

Duke has to help protect a range of rare species including the Schweinitz’s sunflower, bald eagles, wood storks, American alligators and shortnose sturgeon.

American shad and blueback herring, fish that swim upstream to spawn, will be trapped and trucked around the Lake Wateree dam, the southernmost in Duke’s 225-mile reservoir system. Devices to help American eels wriggle past the dam will also be built.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender