Georgia Power, Remove the Tugalo Dam

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“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”                                                                       -John Muir

Have you ever looked out over a lake and wondered what used to be there? What was that place like before it was buried and forgotten? Was that loss truly necessary? After a paddle down the Chattooga or Tallulah Gorge, or a drive down to the end of Bull Sluice Road, you find yourself wondering that same thing about lake Tugalo.

The Tugalo Dam, like many dams of its time, was built to serve projected energy demands of urban development. Its construction began in 1917. Atlanta was the fastest growing city in the Southeast, and though there was not yet a market for the power the dam would produce, there surely would be.

The plant's maximum generating capacity is 45 Megawatts. By today's standards that's not very much. In 2018 it would not justify damming six miles of river and destroying 597 acres of temperate rainforest. By 2036, when it is once again up for re-licensing, will it justify keeping the river dammed for a further forty years? That amount of electricity equates to less than 1% of Georgia Power’s total energy capacity, a percentage that will only get smaller with time, and it is costing millions of dollars to keep the dam operating. Modern solar plants can generate the same amount of electricity cheaper, cleaner, safer, and requiring less land per Megawatt than Lake Tugalo does. The company has already added over 900 MW of solar capacity in Georgia, and plans for more are in the works.

The dam is a relic. Layers of concrete spall away, exposing the reinforcing steel within its sloped downstream face, splattered white with resin injected into extensive cracks to bind it back together. Random vegetation grows from places where water leaks through and runs down in little streams into the pool below. Broken powerhouse windows go perpetually unfixed. Rusty handrails, barbwire-topped fences, and DANGER signs decorate the property to keep visitors safe. 

Out on the lake in areas that should be fifty to a hundred feet deep you can stand without getting your hair wet. A century of sedimentation has gradually been filling it in. Methane bubbles up from biodegrading organic matter down below, sometimes in sudden, large, prolonged bursts, playing its own small role in the warming of our atmosphere, not to mention creating a public health concern. Looking at these conditions, one thing becomes crystal clear: this dam is OLD. 

Throughout its long life, it has undergone tens of millions of dollars' worth of repairs and upgrades to keep up with the effects of floods, severe climate, and concrete deterioration. In 1989 dozens of steel post-tensioned rock anchors were installed and encased in grout. Its ability to withstand a major flood now depends on those anchors, not the strength of the dam itself. While the “Probable Maximum Flood” for this watershed was once considered unlikely, climate change has in recent years delivered numerous storms that dropped unprecedented rainfall on the Southern US, and has proven that such an occurrence here is possible.

The project's 1996 Environmental Impact Statement claims it has flood control benefits which would be lost if dams were removed. Yet, after a tropical storm over Memorial Day weekend of 2018 forced all six dams to overflow, flooding roads, buildings, and resulting in evacuations of neighborhoods along the Tallulah River, Georgia Power insisted that the dams actually do not have flood control capabilities. This has happened many times over the years, and will continue to happen. It is extremely dangerous, and it is too important an issue to be given two conflicting stories about it. People deserve to know the truth, and information that details the failure risks involved with these dams should be made accessible to all concerned citizens. No one has said that things will get that bad, but it would be more responsible to eliminate the hazard preemptively than to continue to put it off.

What is taking priority over accountability here? At what point will this become unacceptable on a federal level?

Imagine the lake transformed back into a river valley, lush with 500 additional acres of replanted native trees. Forests produce fresh oxygen, filter ground water, sequester tons of carbon dioxide and pollutants from the air every day, and provide valuable habitat for birds, plants and other wildlife, something the world needs now more than ever. The expanded aquatic range would benefit both upstream and downstream and could reduce the amount of money spent stocking fish, including on Lake Yonah. The absence of motorboats would improve air quality and provide a more peaceful experience for anglers and campers. The biggest factor in designating the Chattooga Wild and Scenic and creating Tallulah Gorge State Park was for the preservation of natural characteristics. This has been a tremendous asset to the local economy and a huge source of pride in Georgia.

Original surveys of the river prior to the dam’s construction reveal sections of steep gradient. A combined total of six restored miles of the lower Chattooga and Tallulah Rivers would again flow swiftly down to their confluence through beautiful bedrock channels and stout boulder-laced rapids, whitewater pearls in an oyster of deep forest free from development. Generations of paddlers and their families have built a whole community around the connections with nature that running the river provides. Restoring this spot is something that they've dreamt about since boating was born.

Significant archeologic sites could become accessible for study, such as the Adam Vandiver homestead or remnants of structures from the early logging era. Scientific insight could be gained by studying the layers of sediment, the rings of old growth tree stumps, and geologic features at the confluence.

Dam Removal is no simple task, but it has become more efficient, thanks to lessons learned from decades of successful efforts on hundreds of rivers throughout the country and the rest of the world. Here are a few factors which make the Tugalo area a great candidate for restoration:

  • The benefits of ecological services, enhanced recreational opportunities, and money saved by not having to maintain the dam or pay land taxes outweigh those of keeping it in place.
  • There are no houses or businesses on the lake, and aside from Georgia Power, no private land owners with whom to settle property disputes. The restored land could be accessed from Tallulah Gorge State Park, increasing its national appeal.
  • There are no water intakes on the lake. No irrigation or municipal drinking water infrastructure utilizes it, so no one stands to lose any source of water.
  • Efforts to restore rivers and fish habitat have increased in Georgia over the years, on the Savannah, Oconee, and Chattahoochee Rivers. The removal of two dams on the Chattahoochee nearly a decade ago resulted in improved environmental conditions and recreation, and Georgia Power have recently proposed removing three more dams there. Adding Tugalo to this growing list will help us get a foothold in combating issues of water quality and aging infrastructure throughout the state.
  • While many owners of old deadbeat dams cannot afford the costs for their removal, Georgia Power and its parent Southern Company are financially stable and have the resources necessary to make this happen. Any dam that the company no longer has to maintain could mean money allocated more appropriately, such as for cleaning up coal ash ponds or better containment of nuclear waste.

  What will it take for this to become a reality? 

The local community must decide they want this to happen badly enough to publicly demand it of Georgia Power, and the company must decide to honor those wishes.   Besides signing this petition, people are encouraged to call or write to the following:
To voice your concerns, contact Georgia Power, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and Georgia legislatures, and request they schedule public meetings to discuss the option to remove the Tugalo Dam.
For questions involving flood risks in areas downstream of these dams contact the Emergency Management Agencies in Rabun, Habersham, or Stephens County, Georgia and request access to the Emergency Action Plan for the North Georgia Hydroelectric Project.
For questions about the environmental impacts of the North Georgia Hydroelectric Project, contact the SC Department of Health and Environmental Control or the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
To learn more about issues concerning the Chattooga and how dam removals helped restore awesome rivers elsewhere in our country, go online and check out the Chattooga Conservancy, American Rivers, and American Whitewater.