Alabama Power’s latest license to operate Neely Henry Dam — and six other dams on the Coosa River — became invalid Monday.
The license lapse won’t change the way the dam operates any time soon. But it does mean the utility may have to go back to federal regulators with new proposals to minimize the dam’s effect on the river.
“There’s really no precedent for what’s happening,” said Cindy Lowry, director of the Alabama Rivers Alliance.
Lowry’s group and other environmentalists won a major court case in July, after suing the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission over its 2013 decision to grant Alabama Power a renewed license to operate dams along the Coosa to generate hydroelectric power.
Most living Alabamians have never known a Coosa without dams. Built from 1914 to 1985, the dams turned the Coosa into a power source and transformed river valleys into lakes. Environmentalists say the dams also had a significant effect on the ecology of the river, which is home to a wide variety of snail and fish species.
Alabama Power did more than a decade of study on the dam’s environmental effects before it gained its 2013 license. Environmentalists said federal officials didn’t adequately account for damaging effects of the dams, including low dissolved oxygen levels in the waters downstream from the dams.
Lowry said oxygen gets dissolved into the water when water is released during power generation.
“The problem is, they only generate power a couple of hours a day,” she said.
The 11th Circuit Court of appeals agreed. In the July decision, the court noted that oxygen near the Neely Henry dam dropped below levels safe for fish about 13 percent of the time that power was being generated. During non-generation times, when water isn’t being released from the dam, oxygen was below tolerances 37 percent of the time.
The court vacated the 2013 license, and Alabama Power let the period for an appeal expire this week. That doesn’t mean the dam will be shut down or dismantled: Company officials say they can operate Neely Henry under an old license which has been repeatedly renewed in recent years.
“Essentially all the operations along the Coosa will remain the same,” said Jim Crew, manager of Alabama Power’s hydroelectric division.
What the lapse does mean is that FERC and other federal agencies have to take another look at the company’s license application — and that Alabama Power may need to come up with more measures to minimize the effects of the dams.
“There’s a lot of room for improvement on dissolved oxygen levels,” said Gil Rogers, Alabama director for the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Rogers said regulators might look into requiring more aerators, devices that essentially pump oxygen into the water, as one option. They might change the schedule of water releases, he said, to keep oxygen levels up. They might also include “fish ladders,” channels that allow fish to swim upstream past a dam.
But much is still up in the air. Both environmentalists and power company officials say a license revocation is rare, and the courts outlined no timeline for a new license to be issued.
Crew said the process will take two to three years at minimum. Fish ladders would be the most expensive potential change, though Alabama Power contends that species in Alabama’s rivers don’t need them.
Crew said the company in recent years has built new equipment to help maintain oxygen levels. He said that at Neely Henry and other dams, devices called blowers will inject oxygen into the water as it’s being released through the dams. In at least one other lake, there are underwater pipes that inject liquid oxygen into the lake upstream of the dam.
Alabama Power officials said they’d taken thousands of comments during the public comment period on their last license application. Crew said he didn’t expect another comment period to be needed during the coming re-application. Environmentalists said they do expect one — and they hope residents along the river will participate.
“This case really shows the importance of public participation in the process,” Lowry said.