Lawsuit filed over federal hydropower project

Pointing up the growing conflict over access to federal power and water projects, an organization representing federal hydroelectric customers is seeking an injunction to bar the US Army Corps of Engineers from permitting water withdrawals from Lake Lanier, Buford, Ga., by municipalities without charging a 'fair amount' to generate replacement electricity. The lawsuit was filed in federal court by the Southeastern Federal Power Customers Inc. against the US Secretary of Army and the Corps.


Kate Thomas
OGJ Online

Pointing up the growing conflict over access to federal power and water projects, an organization representing federal hydroelectric customers is seeking an injunction to bar the US Army Corps of Engineers from permitting water withdrawals from Lake Lanier, Buford, Ga., by municipalities without charging a "fair amount" to generate replacement electricity.

The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in the US District Court, Washington, DC, by the Southeastern Federal Power Customers Inc.(SFPC) against the US Secretary of Army and the US Army Corps of Engineers. No hearings have been scheduled, according to Pinckney Roberts, an attorney and president of SFPC, which is made up of 21 nonprofit rural electric cooperatives and municipal utilities that serve customers in eight states. Attorneys with the Corps of Engineers were unavailable for comment.

Buford Dam at Lake Lanier is part of a system that generates power for more than 4 million retail electric customers in Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina and Mississippi. The reservoir has been increasingly used in the last 30 years as water supply for several Georgia cities that contracted with the US Army Corps of Engineers, according to the lawsuit.

In the 1970s, the Corps permitted small water removal from Lake Lanier under contracts with the city of Cumming, Ga.; Gwinnett County, Ga.; the City of Gainesville, Ga.; and the Atlanta Regional Commission, according to the lawsuit.

The suit contends the Corps is allowing water removal to continue, in greater amounts, even though all contracts expired in 1993. Withdrawals have risen from 10,341 acre- ft/day in 1977 to 134,201 acre-ft/day in 1999.

That means less water for hydropower generation and higher electricity rates for consumers, says Roberts. With less hydroelectric power available, the Southeastern Power Administration (SEPA), a division of the US Department of Energy, has to purchase replacement electricity. SEPA markets electricity from the federal dams.

$1 million for replacement power
Those increased costs� up to nine times as much hydroelectric power from the 105 Mw Buford Dam�have been passed on to the rural electric cooperatives and municipal utilities that buy power from SEPA. In recent years, Roberts says, the cost of replacement electricity has exceeded $1 million annually.

While lake levels are low in the Southeast, Roberts said, the issues detailed in the lawsuit are "separate and distinct" from the drought because the water is being taken out before it gets to the generator. He said discussions with the Corps about the problems were unproductive, prompting the SFPC to ask "the courts to tell them what to do."

Roberts said the Corps can mitigate the harm to hydropower customers by charging cities a fair amount to withdraw water�one that equals the cost of replacement electricity�and crediting SEPA for that amount.

"We are not seeking financial damages, nor do we want to completely stop the withdrawals,'' Roberts said. "We're simply asking that the Corps follow the law so we can continue to provide affordable, reliable public power.''

Congress authorized the Buford Dam and Reservoir project at Lake Lanier in 1946 to provide hydroelectric generation, flood control, and downstream water flow benefits. It did not authorize water supply as a project purpose, except as an incidental result of power generation, according to the lawsuit.

The suit also maintains the Corps failed to perform necessary environmental analysis required by the applicable federal statutes, including the National Environmental Policy Act. It asks that the Corps follow laws and regulations that limit its authority in withdrawing water�specifically, the Flood Control Act of 1944 and the Water Supply Act of 1958.

"We're not trying to stop its [Buford Dam at Lake Lanier] use as a supply of water. We're just asking that its basic purpose is upheld as defined in federal statutes,'' Roberts says.

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