North Carolina’s Pee Dee River east of Charlotte has been named one of the most endangered U.S. rivers by the advocacy group American Rivers.
The annual rankings don’t identify the nation’s most polluted rivers, the group says, but those for which critical decisions loom. The Catawba River west of Charlotte has made the list three times since 2001.
The Pee Dee, which flows across South Carolina to the Atlantic, is the subject of an ongoing legal fight by American Rivers.
The group is challenging a federal hydroelectric license awarded to Duke Energy last year. It says the license hurts the river’s health by allowing Duke to release too little water downstream from a dam on the Pee Dee.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
The city of Rockingham, which borders the river, joined the group in litigation that is now before the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
With its textile base shrinking, Rockingham turned to ecotourism for an economic boost. But the flow of released water in the disputed 19-mile reach is often too low for small fishing boats or abruptly too high – “like filling an empty bathtub with a firehose,” city manager Monty Crump said.
Duke notes that American Rivers and Rockingham lost that argument in state courts before appealing the federal license.
Terms of the license “are all designed to protect water quality as well as fish and other aquatic species of the Pee Dee River,” Duke said in a statement.
“Duke Energy has complied with all requirements of the new license and will continue to perform monitoring to provide information on improvements to aquatic life expected from our operations under the new license.”
The state agency now called the Department of Environmental Quality had the task, nearly a decade ago, of certifying that the federal hydro license wouldn’t hurt water quality on the Pee Dee. But Gerrit Jobsis, an American Rivers official in Columbia, S.C., said the department also wanted to conserve thousands of acres of utility-owned land near the river.
A state policy memo issued in 2007 said preservation of land could be used to offset damage to streams from development.
The water-quality certification issued the following year to Progress Energy, which later merged with Duke, approved the disputed minimum water releases that were later included in the federal license.
The certification also referred to Progress’ commitments in a settlement agreement over license terms to donate 1,900 acres near the Pee Dee and protect riverside buffer zones.
The Environmental Protection Agency later warned the state that land preservation couldn’t replace water quality standards. DEQ and Duke say the water releases are adequate.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees endangered species, had recommended minimum releases more than double those reflected in the license. The service said two endangered fish species, American shad and blueback herring, wouldn’t be able to migrate up the Pee Dee to spawn without more water.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission sided with Duke and DEQ in issuing a hydro license last April, and later denied American Rivers’ request for a rehearing. The group then appealed in federal court.