The continuing water release debate

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By The Staff

The present water release protocol from Leesville Dam is enveloped in folklore and justified by 42 years of operation that generally favored enhancing river flows over maintaining safe water levels in Smith Mountain Lake.

A silver bullet solution that would miraculously resolve the issue of water release and be accepted by all parties has yet to be found and probably doesn't exist. But my hope is that the new release protocol will be based on today's reality, science and analysis. Consider some commonly held beliefs that are frequently professed and some may actually be used to form the new license:

Project out flow should always equal inflow. Be careful what one wishes for ee this approach will eventually lower Smith Mountain Lake to unacceptable levels, levels far below what we currently experience. Evaporation and project leakage can draw down the project as much as 6 inches in a month, during hot and dry conditions. And if we always release what enters, the project will never refill.

"Canoe zero" is the flow at which all recreation stops in the Staunton River. First, canoe zero is defined as the minimum flow condition under which a competent canoeist can navigate without leaving the canoe to portage around or drag the canoe over a shallow section of stream. Second, the Staunton River runs from Leesville Dam for some 98 miles to the head of Kerr Reservoir (or its confluence with Dan River), so its doubtful that all recreation ceases. Third the most popular forms of river recreation consist of bank fishing, canoeing, wading and float fishing. Fourth, river access to the scenic Staunton is restricted to only three public access sites, Altavista some 20 river miles above Long Island and Brookneal some 11 river miles below Long Island—a sorry situation for Virginia's first scenic river.

"White Water: A Canoeing Guide To The Rivers Of The Old Dominion" by H. Roger Corbett describes the 11 mile reach of scenic river between Long Island and Brookneal, Va., as one of the worst for boats, but canoes can still use the sluices built for navigation [200 year old channels blasted through rock ledges or hand dug channels around impassible reaches]. A reasonable alternative to extend canoeing would be to add more public access and keep sluices free of debris so the entire river is accessible.

The proposed HL_8 protocol provides safe recreational water levels on the reservoirs. False, a safe water level on Smith Mountain Lake, the level which does not degrade public safety or the mission of our Marine Fire, Rescue and Dive Department, is 792 feet. Operation under HL_8 will result in lake levels as low as 788 feet, performance virtually identical to the past 42 years of project operation. When Smith Mountain Lake falls below 792 feet, it becomes more dangerous, and the further the level falls below 792 feet, the greater the danger to residents, visitors and first responder volunteers of our Marine Fire, Rescue and Dive Department. Appalachian Power's new license proposal states the project is safe so long as the project level doesn't fall below 787 feet (8 feet below full pond)—now that's some serious folklore!

The Smith Mountain Project is a reservoir, developed for the purpose of power generation, and by definition a reservoir stores water for beneficial uses downstream of the project. Before granting a new license to Appalachian Power, the FERC must consider the project’s consistency with federal and state comprehensive plans for improving, developing or conserving the waterway. For example, comprehensive plans might include a restoration plan for certain species of fish (such as the endangered Roanoke Log Perch) or improved management of the riverine environment (such as discharging flows from Leesville Dam so as to mimic natural river conditions).

Beneficial uses include both in-project and in-stream and both must be given equal consideration and study. Benefits are of equal importance to power generation, meaning if the licensee, Appalachian Power, operates the project in a manner that degrades or harms beneficial public uses, including recreation; it could be held in violation of its operational license or not granted a new license. Appalachian Power under its current Federal license is required to maximize public access to project waters; and under State Code 62.1-10(b), its discharges (releases) from Leesville authorized by a Virginia Water Permit shall be executed in such a manner that any impacts to stream beneficial uses are minimized. More briefly, there should be a balance between in-project and in-stream beneficial uses.

More water in the river is better. It depends upon your objective. "Managing a river to maintain minimum water flow or sustain a single 'important species' is like teaching pet tricks to a wolf: The animal may perform, but it's not much of a wolf anymore." (Natural Variability Is Key To River Restoration, Roger Segelken, Cornell University)

The Smith Mountain reservoir exists to provide sufficient flow to protect beneficial in-stream uses below the project. This is true; however, protect means to shield from harm. Protection for municipal and private downstream water permit holders is achieved by establishing the project's minimum release flow at or above the need of permit holders affected by the discharge, which would be 350cfs to 400cfs. To shield downstream recreation from harm, the project's release should not be less than inflows to the project, but water loss and flow augmentation requires refill periods, when impacts to instream beneficial uses can be minimized.

To protect the Staunton River fishery from harm, releases from the project should be regulated to mimic the natural flow of the river. "Among river ecologists there is a consensus that ‘normal' or 'natural’ flows are a desirable goal to sustain river function and native biodiversity (Poff et al., 2006). This is supported by numerous case studies that indicate the importance of natural flow variability for both ecological processes (Poff et al., 1997), evolutionary adaptations (Lytle and Poff, 2004), as well as river physical structure (Schmidt et al., 2001). There are numerous National Academy reports that highlight the importance of flow variability in instream flow management (NRC, 2004; NRC, 2005)." (Cully Hession, VA Tech)

Relicensing studies indicate that a natural flow protocol, during periods of low inflow, would result in a 60 percent to 90 percent loss of habitat for most species. False, the instream flow study shows that habitat increases significantly for most species in the Staunton River during these infrequent, naturally occurring low flow conditions. Habitat constantly varies; it should not be referred to as a permanent loss.

After two years of study and development, HL_8 represents the best solution. False, the TCRC recommended release protocol (as modeled and provided in its written comments to DEQ) is less complex, easier to implement, fairer and more balanced in addressing public safety, public water supply, fishery, and recreation both in and below the project. It does not keep the project full, nor can it guarantee the project level will always remain above 792'.

It does protect against the deep draw-downs in lake level and reduces their duration and occurrence. It continues to augment flows for downstream recreation when project levels are safe, enhances the Staunton River fishery, provides flows necessary for operation of the Vic Thomas Striped Bass Hatchery at Brookneal, and protects historical spawning grounds. There is a potential 3 percent degradation (from HL_8) for downstream canoeing on weekends between Memorial Day and 15 October; however this is a 7 percent improvement over natural flows. In my opinion, this is fair and balanced.

What happens now? The Virginia Depart of Environmental Quality is extremely busy analyzing the many written public comments and the record from the "mother of all public hearings" in Gretna. We wait for them to analyze the data and prepare their written report (expected release date 23/24 September '08). I remain optimistic that DEQ will recognize the superior solution that meets their regulations and State Code. The State Water Control Board is expected to meet in Richmond on either Oct. 23 or 24, 2008, to consider DEQ's recommendation for the permit.