The Southern Environmental Law Center and the Alabama Rivers Alliance are poring over the several-hundred page, 30-year license the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission reissued to Alabama Power June 20 after an eight-year process. The groups say they might appeal the decision and even file a lawsuit if they decide the license does not meet their environmental protection standards. While they understand Alabama Power's responsibility to provide sufficient electricity to the state, the company might be able to do so while improving conservation efforts of the river, the environmental groups say.
Meanwhile, Alabama Power representatives say they have done much to improve the environmental conditions in the river in recent years and will continue to do so.
Gil Rogers, attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said his organization and the Rivers Alliance are concerned that the full, long-term environmental impact of Alabama Power's hydropower system on the Coosa River was not adequately studied before the license was reissued.
"We think a project of this magnitude needs a robust environmental analysis ... from recreation to endangered species ... the whole range," Rogers said. "This process also needs maximum public involvement."
Rogers said the two environmental groups have 30 days from the reissuance of the license to appeal FERC to reassess its decision and require more environmental study. If that fails, the law center might then file a lawsuit against FERC to get the environmental study done, he said.
Mitchell Reid with Alabama Rivers Alliance, which has been involved in the relicensing process since it began, said his group is not trying to stop Alabama Power from using its hydroelectric dams.
"We can't change the fact that the dams are there," Reid said. "We understand that Alabama Power needs to protect the interest of its users, but there should also be a reasonable expectation that they don't do more harm than they have to do."
For the last several decades, the Coosa River has seen its biodiversity decline, which the Rivers Alliance and other environmental groups have attributed to the use of hydroelectric dams. Reid said the dams leech out much of the oxygen in the river that creatures living there need to survive.
"When you draw water from deep down in the reservoir, that tends to pull out the more oxygen-rich water and then you end up with a system that doesn't have an adequate amount of oxygen," Reid said.
Matt Bowden, vice president of environmental affairs at Alabama Power, said his company has worked to improve conditions in the river in recent years.
"By any metric you want to use, the Coosa River system is better today than it has been in decades and will be further enhanced by actions called for in our new license," Bowden said in a Friday email to The Star.
According to Alabama Power, through the input gathered from 250 public meetings over the last six years, the company incorporated extensive species and habitat protection and enhancement measures in its license application. Those measures included a flow release plan to enhance the aquatic habitat in the Weiss Lake Bypass, a recreation plan that includes facility and access improvements and a comprehensive shoreline management plan for shoreline protection and enhancement.
Bowden said several listed species populations in the river have shown significant growth in recent years, such as the painted rocksnail and the Tulotoma snail.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Tulotoma snail, found only in the Coosa and Alabama rivers, was removed in 2011 from the federal endangered species list. The agency attributed the snail's improvement partially to Alabama Power establishing minimum flows below Jordan Dam and improving water quality below Logan Martin Dam through operational modifications.
"There has been recovery of the Tulotoma snail species and we've been very appreciative of Alabama Power's efforts," Reid said. "Our question is, 'is that the best we can do or are there things we can do for the system to meet Alabama Power's needs while better protecting the Coosa?'"
Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.