Comprehensive Watershed Management and Planning: Drought-related Issues in the Southeastern United States
TESTIMONY OF SAM D. HAMILTON, REGIONAL DIRECTOR, SOUTHEAST REGION, U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE, DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR, BEFORE THE HOUSE TRANSPORTATION AND INFRASTRUCTURE COMMITTEE, SUBCOMMITTEE ON WATER RESOURCES AND THE ENVIRONMENT REGARDING DROUGHT ISSUES IN THE SOUTHEAST
March 11, 2008
Madame Chairwoman, and Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to testify on behalf of the Department of the Interior regarding the impacts of the current drought in the Southeast. I am Sam Hamilton, Regional Director for the Southeast Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia. I am accompanied today by Jess Weaver, Regional Executive for the Southeast Region of the U.S. Geological Survey.
As you are aware, the Southeast is in the midst of an historic drought. Many reservoirs are at their lowest recorded elevations and several cities and towns support significantly higher populations and demand more water than they did during previous droughts. In 2007, parts of Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee had their lowest annual rainfall on record and stream flows in many areas have been at all time lows. While some forecasts for 2008 suggest that conditions may improve later this year, the situation today remains very serious.
Using information provided by the USGS, this statement provides a brief overview of the relevant hydrology in the region. It includes a discussion of the principal regional reservoirs and the various water uses and competing demands for water in the relevant river basins. The testimony concludes with a discussion of the Department’s ongoing role in the region.
Overview of Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) River Basin
There are five Federal reservoirs in the ACF Basin: Lake Lanier, West Point Lake, Walter F. George Lake, George W. Andrews Lock and Dam, and Lake Seminole at Jim Woodruff Lock and Dam. In addition, 11 non-Federal Georgia Power projects are present within the ACF Basin.
In the context of severe droughts, which occurred in the early and late 1980s and from 1999-2002, conflicts have arisen between increased water demands for Atlanta in the upper part of the Basins and increased demands for irrigation in the lower portion of the ACF. Lake Lanier is the uppermost and largest reservoir in the ACF Basin.
Principal Reservoirs of the ACF Basin
Lake Lanier was formed by Buford Dam in 1956 as a Federal reservoir. Located at the headwaters of the ACF system, Lake Lanier comprises 62.5 percent of the storage in the system, but only 6 percent of the drainage basin. This means that because of its huge storage capacity and relatively small drainage area, it takes longer to refill Lake Lanier than it does other lakes in the system. Operation of the network of reservoirs to provide downstream water is complicated by having the majority of storage located in the upper end of the basin. Lake Lanier must release adequate water to meet water quality and water supply requirements at Peachtree Creek. During extreme drought conditions when storage in the downstream reservoirs is depleted, operations must meet other flow requirements downstream.
West Point Lake was created by West Point Dam in 1974 and represents 17 percent of the ACF Basin storage. Lake Walter F. George was formed by Walter F. George Dam in 1963 and represents 14 percent of the ACF Basin storage. Releases from West Point Lake are critical to meet minimum flow requirements for Columbus, Georgia and for temperature reduction at the Plant Farley thermoelectric generating plant. Plant Farley, completed in 1970 (phase one) and 1977 (phase 2), has a capacity of 1,776 megawatts. This plant supplies more than 20 percent of the electric power used in the State of Alabama. Releases are also required at times to provide adequate depth for navigation.
Lake Seminole was completed in 1957 with the construction of Jim Woodruff Lock and Dam and represents 6 percent of the ACF Basin storage. Releases from Lake Seminole are required to maintain minimum flows established at the time of dam construction to support the Herbert Scholz thermoelectric generating plant, which was completed in 1953 and has a 92 megawatt generating capacity. Recently, additional minimum flow requirements were set to support threatened and endangered species of the Apalachicola River.
Competing Demands for Water in the ACF Basin
How Much Water is in the ACF Basin, and How Much Water is Used?
Surface-water use may be classified as consumptive when water is removed from a source and is not returned to the source for reuse immediately downstream. These consumptive amounts depend on several factors, particularly the type of water use, which varies from region to region. Streamflow during low-flow periods comes primarily from ground water and can be affected by ground-water pumping.
On an average annual basis, consumptive use from the metropolitan Atlanta area represents about 1 percent of average annual streamflow of Apalachicola at Woodruff Dam, which is less than the measurement errors for these data. However, water-supply planning must focus on the amount of streamflow in the upper Basin and not on flows in the Apalachicola River. For instance, in the extreme drought of 1999-2001, average monthly streamflow into Lake Lanier during the summer was not sufficient to meet all downstream needs without significant reservoir level declines during those drought conditions. A USGS Fact Sheet (FS 2007-3034) indicates that cumulative consumptive use in the ACF Basin down to Lake Seminole represented about one-fourth of the streamflow leaving Lake Seminole in July 2000. This was the lowest documented July streamflow in the Apalachicola River leaving Lake Seminole since recordkeeping began there in 1929, although other months have had even lower streamflow. Extreme droughts are rare but recurring and are the focus of water management and planning.
Overview of Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa (ACT) River Basin
The upper reservoirs in the ACT Basin have been discussed extensively with respect to interbasin transfers for supply to the Atlanta region. The two upper reservoirs in this Basin are Carters Lake and Lake Allatoona. Carters Lake was formed in 1974 by construction of Carters Dam and represents 5.7 percent of the Basin reservoir storage and 2.3 percent of the Basin drainage area. Lake Allatoona, impounded in 1950 by Allatoona Dam, represents 11.4 percent of the overall Basin storage and 4.9 percent of the Basin area.
Federal Role in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) River Basin
In the ACF River basin, this means working closely with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the states of Alabama, Florida and Georgia, and other partners to ensure the threatened Gulf sturgeon and three species of endangered mussels – the Purple bankclimber, Fat threeridge and Chipola slabshell - are not jeopardized by any agency action. Collectively, we are working towards the recovery of these species, which require flowing water to survive.
Balancing the water needs of millions of people across three States is not easy, particularly during this extreme drought. The river system supplies water for many municipal and industrial purposes, including power generation, flood control, navigation, drinking water, agriculture, pollution dilution, fish and wildlife habitat, and recreation. It is important to understand that the Service is not putting the needs of fish and mussels ahead of the needs of people. Conserving aquatic species is a means to ensure the health of our rivers and streams, and mussels are the canary in the coal mine for our rivers - declines in native mussel populations indicate an emerging problem with the health of the river that could affect people.
The Service has been working with the Corps since the 1980s when drafting of revisions to the ACF Water Control Plan began. Shortly thereafter the “ACF Water Wars” ensued in several Federal courts. Throughout the era of the tri-state water compact in the 1990s, the Service provided assistance as additional data was collected and as the States negotiated water allocations. With the listing of the Gulf sturgeon as threatened in 1991 and the mussels as endangered in 1998 under the Endangered Species Act, the Service consulted with the Corps as it managed flows within the system.
In addition to our participation in these overarching negotiations, the Service is working proactively on the ground in the ACF basin to help communities meet their growing water demands. For example:
Regardless of these and other proactive efforts to conserve species, in 2006, the basin experienced diminishing precipitation levels and the situation worsened in 2007. Without rainfall, the Corps had to adjust its operations to meet the multiple purposes of the reservoirs, the needs of fish and wildlife, and the needs of basin stakeholders.
To address potential effects of reservoir operations, the Corps developed the Interim Operating Plan (IOP) in 2006, and the Service formally consulted on this plan. While some mussels could be affected by the IOP, we concluded that the 2006 IOP was not enough to avoid jeopardy to the species’ continued existence. Measures to avoid and minimize harm to the species were recommended and accepted by the Corps.
As the drought worsened, the Corps and the Service agreed to several adjustments to the IOP in October 2007, to help maintain water in reservoir storage. The Corps then formally amended the IOP on November 1, 2007, producing the Exceptional Drought Operations (EDO) plan to increase opportunities to store water during rain events. Knowing that extreme drought was continuing, and given our close working relationship with the Corps, the Service marshaled a large team to collect additional data, complete the needed analyses, and complete formal consultation on the EDO in only 15 days, a process that typically takes up to 135 days.
Today we continue to work closely with the Corps, the States, and other Federal agencies to enhance flexibility in water management on the ACF, while considering the needs of fish and wildlife resources. Most recently, we have been supporting Secretary Kempthorne and his staff as they assist the States in negotiating a water sharing agreement for the ACF.
Drought Throughout the Southeast
The drought has also highlighted existing areas of work that are crucial for understanding water shortages. For example, USGS stream gauges throughout these river systems have been important monitoring tools over the course of the drought. Data resulting from this program is basic to our ability to understand changing hydrology and manage these river systems.
While we need information to make decisions, partnerships with key water users and education efforts that encourage the public to conserve water are also needed. Water may soon become a limiting factor for growth and development in many areas of the southeast. While we cannot produce more rain, we can all do more to maximize the use of the precipitation that the Southeast receives to best meet the needs of all water users.
Madame Chairwoman, thank you for the opportunity to testify today. This concludes my prepared remarks, and I would be happy to respond to any questions that Members may have.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 2004, Extended unimpaired flow report, January 1994–December 2001, for the ACT/ACF River Basins, 34 p.
Fanning, J.L., 2003, Water use in Georgia by county for 2000 and water-use trends for 1980 –2000: Georgia Department of Natural Resources Information Circular 106, 176 p., also online at http://ga.water.usgs.gov/pubs/other/ggs-ic106/.
Jones, L.E., and Torak, L.J., 2006, Simulated effects of seasonal ground-water pumpage for irrigation on hydrologic conditions in the Lower Apalachicola– Chattahoochee–Flint River Basin, southwestern Georgia and parts of Alabama and Florida, 1999 –2002: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2006-5234, 83 p., Web-only publication available at http://pubs.usgs.gov/sir/2006/5234/.
Landers, M.N. and Painter, J.A., 2007, How Much Water Is in the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee, and Flint Rivers, and How Much Is Used?, USGS Fact Sheet 2007-3034, 4 P.
Torak, L.J., and McDowell, R.J., 1996, Ground-Water Resources of the Lower Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin in parts of Alabama, Florida, and Georgia—Subarea 4 of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint and Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa River Basins, USGS Open-File Report 95-321, 145 p., available online at http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/1995/ofr95321/