Archived Story

Stakeholders mobilize for FERC’s July 17 hearing to decide fate of lake levels

Published 8:47am Thursday, July 4, 2013

Recreational, economic and other stakeholder groups with interest in Lake Martin are mobilizing for a July 17 public hearing in hopes of persuading the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to disregard staff recommendations for the Martin Dam relicensing project. FERC last month released a long-awaited draft environmental impact statement (EIS), leaving many stakeholders in the project surprised and disappointed at staff recommendations to deny the elevated winter water level and seasonal extension provisions requested in Alabama Power Company’s license application.

“We’re disappointed that they didn’t see the same things we saw when we put our proposal together,” said Brandon Glover, Alabama Power spokesman. Alabama Power more than two years ago filed a relicensing application with FERC for continued operation of Martin Dam. The power company’s license expired last month, and they currently are operating under a status quo agreement until FERC issues a new license, which will be in effect for the next 40 years.

With the release of the draft EIS, stakeholders and interested public can submit comments in the matter until Aug. 13, according to the notice posted on FERC’s website. In addition, FERC will host a public meeting from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. July 17 at the Betty Carol Graham Technology Center on the Alexander City campus of Central Alabama Community College. Glover said representatives from Alabama Power would attend

the meeting to support their application and the stakeholders.

“We worked with all the stakeholders to put together something that we thought would benefit everybody,” Glover said, “and we are still working to support what we proposed.”

Alabama Power requested an increase in winter water levels from 481 feet to 484 feet mean sea level. Previous water level measurements used the Martin Datum standard, which identifies winter pool level at 480 feet and summer pool level at 490; FERC has changed the pool level measurement standard to a mean sea level method, which measures the winter pool as 481 feet and summer pool 491.

Under current operation, the flood curve is at 481 feet Jan. 31 to Feb. 17 when it gradually rises to an elevation of 491 feet by April 28. The curve remains at 491 feet until Aug. 30, when the drawdown again lowers the water level to 481 by Dec. 31.

The application also proposed an extension of the summer pool level, which could prolong the boating season on Lake Martin by four to six weeks when certain conditions are met.

The draft EIS notes an elevation in the winter pool would carry the risk of flooding at least 23 residential and commercial structures and public roads downstream of Martin Dam and states the benefits of an increased winter pool “are difficult to justify considering the additional risk of flooding.”

The FERC staff also estimated that the conditions for the proposed fall extension would be met as infrequently as one in three years.

“The benefits would be primarily limited to shoreline property owners,” the draft states. “… Because of existing flexibility in Alabama Power’s current operation, at least some of the benefit intended by the proposal for the conditional fall extension could be provided without Alabama Power’s proposed changes in operating requirements.”

Economic impact in the communities surrounding Lake Martin was not a factor addressed in the draft EIS.

FERC spokesperson Celeste Miller did note the draft EIS constitutes a staff recommendation and is not a commission decision. “The public has 60 days to comment on the DEIS,” she explained. “All comments will be addressed in the final EIS.”

Lake Martin Realtor John Coley said the proposed changes in water level and season length would have greatly benefited not only homeowners on the lake but also the communities close by.

“A lot more houses around the lake would have had year-round water, and a house with year-round water is more valuable,” Coley explained. “It would immediately help those that have a water level at 5 feet. It would have meant an increase in those home prices.”

While Coley said specific figures would be difficult to ascertain, any home on Lake Martin with deeper water will carry a higher value.

“Our listings do not record water depth, and the small sample pool from which we can draw – for instance, 230 sales last year – is too small. But I can tell you that no one has ever requested a home with shallow water. When they purchase a home with shallow water, it’s usually a budget matter. The houses with deep water cost more.”

Along with an increase in value, he noted, would be an increase in property tax revenues. Higher water levels and more time at full pool also would lengthen the tourism season on the lake, he said.

Russell Lands president Tom Lamberth also said he is disappointed with the draft EIS provisions.

“We felt like the power company had done a good job of getting input from various stakeholders at Lake Martin through public hearing and comment periods over the last several years. They did a lot of modeling and surveys, and the application they submitted represented a balance of interest for all the parties,” Lamberth said.

Lamberth said Russell Lands will participate in the public hearing scheduled for this month and will submit comments before the August deadline.

“We will do what we can to support the power company’s license application,” Lamberth said. “I know they are going to fight to have the FERC decision changed, and we are going to be there to support them in that in any way we can.”

Glover said Alabama Power would review the application information in the weeks before the comment period ends in August to see where the proposal can be strengthened. “We’ll try to tighten up our proposal,” he said. “We’ll be talking with everybody that has been involved on the front end. At the public meeting, we will listen to what everybody has to say and likely make some comments.”

President of Lake Martin Resource Association (LMRA) John Thompson said he expects LMRA and other stakeholders will encourage their members to attend the public meeting and submit comments.

“I’m going in with the idea that we will develop a strategy and organize the community. Contact the mayors, commissioners, economic development folks and say, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ We’ll get the word out through media and an email campaign to our 1,200-plus members, and we’ll be asking other groups to do the same thing. This is such a big thing for our community that we are taking it in that respect, that we need to organize an effort to have a good turnout,” Thompson said.

Dick Bronson, former Lake Watch president, said that he believes any change in FERC’s position in the matter will need to come from Alabama Power.

“If Alabama Power is strongly in support of a raised winter pool, they have to make that argument. Personally, I think the stakeholders have already made our arguments. We won’t have anything new,” said Dick Bronson, former president of Lake Watch. “If Alabama Power wants to go up against landowners who live downstream – who live in a flood plain voluntarily, I would make the point – they have to make that argument. If FERC does not go along with that, we will still have the best and prettiest lake in Alabama, regardless of winter pool levels.”

Lake Martin Home Owners and Boat Owners (HOBO) president Dave Heinzen said the HOBOs also will amp up membership attendance July 17, and he believes the FERC decision will be changed to coincide with the Alabama Power proposal.

“FERC told us that they would not be considering economic impact in their decision, but we’ve lost so much in this area recently, due to the drought. A loss of lake traffic, loss of businesses, and we are going to have to insist that they take economic development into consideration. I don’t think 11 downstream farmers can hold this whole thing hostage for 40 years. I think we will prevail.”

Comments up to 6,000 characters may be filed electronically, without prior registration as a stakeholder, using the eComment system at Commenters must include their name and contact information at the end of their remarks. Online assistance is available at the site.

FERC also will accept paper-filed comments, though the commission strongly encourages electronic filing. To paper file, send the original comment and five copies to Kimberly D. Bose, Secretary, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, 888 First Street, NE, Washington, DC 20426.

All comments should reference Project No. 349-173.