Relicensing Update, January 2020
Barry Morris, Relicensing Committee Chairman
(latest licensing update on our main/home page)

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) licenses man-made lakes for 50 year periods. Public waters must be put to the best use for the largest number of people while protecting the interests of smaller groups. Lake Harris (Lake Wedowee) is due for a renewed license in 2023. Alabama Power must submit a license renewal application by November 2021, FERC will study it and make changes based on their expertise and public input, and issue a new license by November 2023.

Of course, the devil is in the details. 2023 is a long way off and a lot must happen between now and then. Much studying, analyzing, public input and revisions will take place before the federal license is granted. The new license could require a few – or many – changes to the way the lake is currently managed.

Since the public process began three years ago, Alabama Power has gathered public input and formulated study plans that were submitted to FERC and subsequently approved after months of public comment and input.

The six study areas are:

  1. Operations and dam releases downstream (this includes lake levels)
  2. Water quality, erosion and sedimentation
  3. Fish and Wildlife
  4. Project lands
  5. Recreation
  6. Cultural resources

All study plans are complete. Alabama Power and contractors are looking closely at these areas and will present findings periodically over the next two years. Then they compile all the study results into the application. Alabama Power updates their relicensing website every six months with ongoing info from the studies. All of this information is available to anyone at the Harris Relicensing website.

After the application is filed with FERC, the public and affected stakeholders can comment, recommend changes based on data, or even challenge the application. This is where the process can get ugly in a hurry and that’s why LWPOA will be very closely watching what happens after the filing. It’s also why LWPOA has slowly put together a contingency fund should we need to take action requiring lawyers, engineers or other professional help.

There are an awful lot of “what ifs” out there that could require very expensive firepower should the best interests of lake property owners be threatened. Many groups or agencies that could challenge the license and ask for changes to the lake have extensive backing beyond their local membership. As property owners, we have only ourselves. Nobody is going to ride to our rescue if a change is requested/required that negatively affects our property values or recreational opportunities. It will be solely up to us to hire the right experts to interpret the study data and prove to FERC how our position is correct.

All six studies intersect in many ways, and findings in one can affect conclusions in another.

Reservoir Operation (lake level and downstream releases) is the area of greatest interest and has the highest potential for a challenge. On the lake, the LWPOA has stated it’s preference for the lake to be drawn down only 4 feet in the winter, instead of the current 8 feet. This has a huge impact on flood control, which is FERC’s primary reason for allowing a lake here. In a nutshell, the winter level looks at the worst case scenario, that is, a “hundred year flood” versus the dam and lake’s capacity to hold it back. The past 30 years have seen three very scary flood events in which the lake rose out of its banks, yet none of those was a hundred year flood. Even the Christmas flood of 2017, when the lake rose from winter pool to full pool (785’ to 793’) in just over a day, was not a 100 year event because of it’s short duration.

Lake levels also affect sedimentation, erosion, and fish and wildlife. All of these reasons are why Alabama Power is looking at the effects of the winter pool at the current level (785’) as well as 7, 6, 5, and 4 feet down in winter.

Downstream releases are a tremendous concern of landowners for 30 miles below the dam, and not just in flood events. The Tallapoosa River below the dam has seen perhaps the greatest change from pre-reservoir days and many landowners are pressing Alabama Power to take more mitigating actions. Mitigating actions that might be directed in a new license could have an impact on lake levels and/or the timing of seasonal pool changes. People downstream are very concerned about riverbank erosion and the effect on wildlife habitat of everyday generating, so other study areas are drawn into dam operations. It gets complicated, and decisions made in the new license are guaranteed not to please everyone.

In the lake, erosion and sedimentation are being studied at many sites based on public input about where these are a problem. However, there is nothing Alabama Power can do about the quality of water flowing into the lake, which includes sediments from agriculture and dirt roads in the entire 1,454 square mile basin.

Project lands refers to the thousand of acres around the lake owned by Alabama Power and set aside for various uses in the original license. The company has submitted a revised land use plan based on what has been learned and trends since 1973. None of the changes are major. Of note, the plan sets aside some land for another potential public access area just west of the Wedowee South Marina on highway 48 west. Public access is being looked at separately in the Recreation study. The revised plan also adds some previously unrestricted land to “The Preserves” at Fox Creek, also known as the Bird Trail, insuring that land will remain natural.

That’s where we are in early 2020. All of this information is available on the Alabama Power and FERC websites if you’re willing to dig through it. Most importantly to LWPOA members, the board wants you to know we’re on top of this and looking out for the best interests of lake landowners, now and in the future. Thank you for your support of LWPOA relicensing oversight by continuing your membership.  

If you have any questions contact me at .

Barry Morris
LWPOA Board (term 2019-2022)