Public v. Private: Power Struggle for the Yadkin 3

May 13, 2009

Today we have the last story in our three part series "Public versus Private: Power Struggle on the Yadkin." As it flows from the Appalachian Mountains, the Yadkin River turns into the Pee-Dee and continues to the Atlantic. Along the way it supplies water to millions of people. Alcoa's effort to secure another 50-year hydropower license on the river has brought it into the spotlight. So has the state's recent drought. WFAE's Julie Rose considers the broader impacts of the Yadkin dispute on North Carolina's rivers.

Catawba Riverkeeper David Merriman in front of a topographical map at his Charlotte office.
Credit Julie Rose / WFAE

  There are still spots on the Yadkin River that look pretty much as they did when Native American ancestors fished its waters. More often, though, the gurgle of water and chirping of birds competes with the din of traffic speeding over bridges that crisscross the river. Environmentalist Dean Naujoks of the Yadkin Riverkeeper says rapid growth and a changing climate are threatening the river.

"We just have not done a good job of managing our water resources - particularly here on the East Coast where there's always been this idea - you know water was everywhere, it was very plentiful and we could always get more," says Naujoks. Then came drought, and with it, a shift toward viewing water as both a resource and a commodity.

But private companies like Alcoa and Duke Energy have looked at water that way for nearly a century as they've harnessed North Carolina's rivers for their own profit. They don't own the water, but their hand is on the spigot, thanks to licenses granted them by the federal government. That's why, during the drought, Charlotte-area communities found themselves knocking on Duke's door.

"I think the drought slapped us all in the face, really," says Catawba Riverkeeper David Merriman. He adds we were lucky Duke was willing to cooperate, since its license on the Catawba didn't require it. As with Alcoa, Duke's license is also up for renewal. Their old licenses didn't include any requirements for managing the river during a drought, because they were issued long before environmental laws were even written. And since the renewed licenses will be good for another 30 to 50 years, Merriman says, "This is a once-in-a-life-time shot to say how our river needs to be managed. Making sure water stays in the river and it doesn't dry up where that river can't function as a source of drinking water, waste water assimilation, habitat and home for our fishes that many of our residents rely on for sustenance."

Given such high stakes, does it really make sense to give a private company that kind of power? Most states have dams managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but North Carolina is one of only seven states where the rest of its hydropower licenses are in private hands. So when a city needs more water - from the Catawba, say - they have to ask Duke Energy. Duke plays the middleman, relaying that request to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for approval. But Duke can also charge the city for that water.

"If the water's gonna be diverted and it otherwise would have gone through the turbines - and they could have generated power from that - then they can be compensated for that loss of power," explains Mark Robinson, Director of Energy Projects for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Duke Energy isn't charging cities for extra water on the Catawba, but does on other rivers. Alcoa has on the Yadkin, too. Robinson says that's very common. But it's troubling to many local officials who are pushing for the state to take control of Alcoa's dams on the Yadkin. To be practical, Robinson says there's no difference between a license held by a private company or a government entity.

"Whoever's hands it's in, they're subject to the same compliance requirements and the same civil penalties and the same potential for revocation of the license," says Robinson. And there are plenty of arguments in favor of allowing private companies to keep the licenses. Catawba Riverkeeper David Merriman says Duke Energy has done a decent job as a steward of that river. The state of North Carolina recently measured water quality near Alcoa's dams on the Yadkin and gave it a thumbs-up, too.

What's most important to Merriman is getting the right restrictions in the license to begin with. But as Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks watches over the Yadkin, he worries it'll take more than a strict license to protect it. "I think there's a sense that somebody's out there patrolling, monitoring, making sure the health of the river is maintained and protected," says Naujoks.

"I'm here to tell you that's not true. I've been doing this work for 20 years now. There's very little funding making sure our environmental agencies can actually enforce clean water initiatives." So Naujoks says it's up to the public to not only push for restrictions in river licenses, but also make sure whoever controls the river follows the law. After all, that's what a good owner would do. And North Carolina's rivers belong to us.