Bringing Alabama’s Coosa Back to Life

Power Pole

American Rivers Organization Calls for Bringing Alabama’s Coosa Back to Life

One of North America’s largest mass extinctions during the 20th century ¬†that has been the fate of the Coosa River, Alabama and it’s diverse freshwater wildlife since the construction of seven hydropower dams. The impacts could become even worse if the dams are allowed to operate under a new license recently issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The license, which sets the terms for operating the dams over the next 30 years,¬†essentially takes a wait-and-see approach requiring minimal improvements and imperils other threatened and endangered freshwater species impacted by these dams spanning 225 miles of the Coosa River. When I first got involved in the Coosa River dams some eight years ago, I was most taken by a 20-miles stretch known by locals as the “dead river”. The Weiss Dam and impoundment divert virtually all flowing water from this river reach for hydropower generation. The river is mostly stagnant, wetted only by water leaking from a diversion dam and backwater effects from a lower dam. The result is that this section of one of Alabama’s major rivers doesn’t have enough flowing water to support boating. Two endangered species of freshwater mussel cling to life only where small tributaries supplement the flow. Bringing the dead river back to life has been a top priority for me and others who care about the Coosa. Despite the best efforts of American Rivers and our partner organizations, the new operating license issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will not resuscitate the Coosa’s dead river. License terms require only meager water flow improvements – flows far lower than during a 10-year drought – and no assurance that oxygen and temperature levels throughout this reach will be safe for rare mussels and other aquatic life. The reissued license fails to require measures that would prevent further loss, let alone recover rare species. Also lacking are changes at the other dams needed to provide clean water, protect rare species and enhance recreation throughout the affected 225 miles of the Coosa River. On behalf of American Rivers and the Alabama Rivers Alliance, a 60-day Notice of Citizen’s Suit under the Endangered Species Act against the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission was filed in August by the Southern Environmental Law Center. This is part of our ongoing opposition to the new, 30-year license for the seven hydropower dams operated by Alabama Power Company. Our goal is to reverse the dams’ significant damage to the Coosa – once one of the most biologically diverse rivers in the world. We have asked for more thorough environmental studies to ensure protections are in place to balance the river’s ecological needs with hydropower production by ensuring healthy river flows and oxygen levels to protect rare freshwater mussels and snails. We also seek improved conditions to provide boating and fishing recreation opportunities in the river. Eight years ago, I hoped the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission would issue a new license that to revive the dead river and correct the failures of all seven dams. That did not happen. I am proud however that American Rivers and our partners have not given up on achieving our vision of a healthy Coosa River where families enjoy clean, flowing waters and freshwater life thrives. It is possible to strike a balance between energy production and healthier rivers. Just look at what American Rivers and our partners were able to accomplish on another Southeastern river – South Carolina’s Saluda. –