Mott grantees hail legal victory that could improve a globally significant river

Conservation groups are praising a federal court ruling that could reinvigorate Alabama’s Coosa River, which ranked among the world’s most biologically diverse rivers before a series of seven hydropower dams harnessed its abundant waters.

The U.S. Court of Appeals — District of Columbia Circuit recently vacated the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s 30-year operating license for the dams, owned by Alabama Power Co. In a unanimous ruling, the court said the agency’s licensing decision was “arbitrary and capricious” because it was based on a flawed environmental analysis and failed to properly address concerns about water quality, endangered species and ecosystem health.

The ruling was a victory for a group of Charles Stewart Mott Foundation grantees — American Rivers, the Alabama Rivers Alliance and the Southern Environmental Law Center — that have long advocated for environmentally friendly operating practices at the dams.

“We are thrilled that the Court clearly understands that improving the license conditions is the only viable option to restore the health of the Coosa River and ensure better protections for water quality and wildlife,” said Gil Rogers, director of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Georgia and Alabama offices. “After decades of degrading one of Alabama’s greatest rivers, it’s high time to bring these essential safeguards into the modern era.”

The Coosa River case is the latest success in a hydropower reform campaign that Mott has supported with more than $6 million in grants since it began in 1992. Spearheaded by American Rivers, the campaign used the federal dam relicensing process to minimize dams’ effects on several rivers in the Great Lakes and southeast regions, and influence dam regulations and operations on a national scale. (See related article.)

In many cases, the campaign ushered in an era of river restoration and unprecedented collaboration among stakeholder groups that traditionally used litigation to settle disputes over dams’ effects on rivers. Many of the operational changes that utilities implemented to improve rivers were accomplished with relatively minor impacts on power production.

“We supported the dam relicensing work for over 20 years because it was a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Sam Passmore, director of Mott’s Environment Program. “A whole generation of dams that were built before modern environmental regulations were being relicensed to comply with modern protections.”

Passmore said many of the arguments used in the Coosa River case, and others involving rivers in the southeastern United States, were based on legal precedents that were established in the Great Lakes region. The Great Lakes work, which improved water quality and fisheries in rivers in Michigan, Wisconsin and New York, was expanded to the southeast because several high-quality, imperiled rivers there stood to benefit from modern dam operating standards.

“The Coosa River project demonstrates both of these points — extremely important biodiversity at stake and the need to make sure operators across the country are held to a uniform set of standards,” Passmore said.

The 280-mile-long Coosa River remains an exceptionally diverse ecosystem, despite the loss of more than 30 aquatic species following the wave of dam construction between 1914 and 1968. The river supports 147 fish species, 54 species of freshwater mussels and 110 species of snails. Several of those species are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The federal court agreed with the legal arguments of Mott grantees, who said FERC’s proposed license for the Coosa River dams would not protect endangered species, wildlife habitat or maintain adequate oxygen levels necessary to support a healthy river ecosystem. The court ordered FERC to draft a new license.

“This important ruling is a powerful example of how essential it is for citizens and conservation groups to be at the table when decisions are made about the health of our rivers,” said Cindy Lowry, executive director of the Alabama Rivers Alliance. “Since the relicensing of these dams only happens every 30 to 50 years, we must get it right or the water quality will suffer, and we will stand to lose even more species.”

Scientists have long known that poorly designed and poorly operated dams can cause tremendous damage to rivers. Dams alter the natural flow of rivers, disrupt aquatic ecosystems and kill fish.

“The Coosa River is among the worst examples of how extreme that damage can be,” said Gerrit Jöbsis, senior conservation director with American Rivers.

Using the federal dam relicensing process as a tool to reduce the environmental impacts of dams is a grueling, costly process. Mott’s long-term support for that work has been critical to victories across the southeast, said Rogers, adding: “These cases require years of sustained effort and the Mott Foundation’s recognition of that is a major factor in this victory for the Coosa River.”

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