Georgia Power, remove the Tugalo Dam

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The Tugalo Dam is located at the confluence of the Chattooga and Tallulah Rivers in the headwaters of the Savannah River basin on the Georgia/South Carolina state line. It was built by the Georgia Power Company as part of the six-dam North Georgia Hydroelectric Group for the purposes of hydropower and flood control. Construction of this dam began in 1917, and after a temporary halt during WW1 it was completed in 1923. Its maximum generating capacity is 45,000 kilowatts, less than 1% of Georgia Power’s total energy production. It is 160 feet tall, 840 feet long at the top, and impounds 597-acre Lake Tugaloo. “Tugaloo” is Cherokee for “Fork of a stream,” referring to this area. 

The Chattooga and Tallulah Rivers flow through the Tallulah Falls Formation, a 500 to 650 million year old mix of Biotite Gneiss, Schist, and Amphibolite within an area known as the Brevard Zone. This formation was metamorphosed during the Paleozoic period. Long ago, the topography of Northeast Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina was a completely different landscape with mountains taller than the Himalayas.

The river bed today is a Geologist’s wonderland… veins of Quartz melted and mashed in giant Granite boulders and an ever-evolving patchwork of potholes and formations created by the erosive forces of the rivers over an incomprehensible time frame. At one point it flowed into the Gulf of Mexico as part of the upper Chattahoochee River, but at some point the Savannah River carved its way up into the foothills of the Appalachians and captured this river near present day Yonah Lake. The Chattooga and Tallulah rivers are an invaluable storybook of the natural forces which shaped the world we know today.

The entire North Georgia Hydro Group is licensed through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), an agency tasked with safety and environmental assessments for many large dams in the U.S. The current license for the project will expire in 2036, and in the years prior to that Georgia Power and the FERC will conduct studies and cost benefit analysis, and Georgia Power could seek approval for re-licensing this project for a further thirty to forty years.

Hydropower’s role in our society, our dependence on energy, and our understanding of natural resources has shifted dramatically in the one hundred years since this project began. Dam removal has become an increasingly popular and viable response to the wholesale environmental destruction of 19th and 20th century industrialization. Less impactful renewable energy sources offer us a more sustainable alternative to hydropower, coal, or fracking.

As the devastating effects of dams become more obvious, more communities are adopting a protective attitude towards our lands and rivers. In 2011-2013 the removal of two large dams and subsequent stream reclamation work on Washington State’s Elwha River drew national attention and reestablished seventy miles of Pacific Salmon spawning grounds. In 2016 the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe succeeded in removing the Hogansburg Dam from the St. Regis River in New York State, the first federally-regulated U.S. dam to be removed by a Native American tribe and the first hydroelectric dam to be removed in the state. In all, seventy-two dams in twenty-one states were removed in 2016, restoring 2,100 miles of river to benefit local economy, public safety, and natural heritage. Since 1912, 1,384 dams have been removed in the U.S. Currently, four major dams are in the preliminary stages of removal on the Klamath River in California, and over 300 miles of Salmon habitat will soon flow free again.

This can and should happen to some of the oldest and most harmful dams in the Southeast, and it is up to the people to say, “We want these dams taken down. We want our rivers back.”

In order to fully understand the impacts of dams on our environment and people, we must look back to what existed here before dams, what was lost. The entire Savannah River basin was home to American Shad, Herring, and Atlantic Sturgeon, Anadromous species that spend most of their lives in the ocean but swim up river to spawn. Shad have been described as “the fish that fed the founders of our nation.” A report from 1899 placed the Shad at Tallulah Falls in Northeast Georgia, more than 340 miles upstream from the sea. For centuries people lived and thrived on the abundant supply of healthy fish the river provided them. Tugaloo, a Cherokee village was located downstream of the Chattooga/Tallulah confluence.

Starting in the 1800’s people began to divert the lower Savannah into manmade channels for mills and to create passage for cargo ships. Hydropower first came to the river in 1913 with the completion of the Tallulah Dam, the largest ever built at that time, and the rest of the North Georgia Hydro Group over the next fourteen years. In one of the most famous environmental cases in Georgia’s history, Helen Dortch Longstreet and the Tallulah Falls Conservation Association led a bitter and unsuccessful legal battle in which they tried passionately to prevent Georgia Power from damming the Tallulah River. They argued that, by dewatering the river, the falls which inspired so much joy and awe would be destroyed. They went town to town, county to county, gaining support from the community and utilizing every resource and influence they had. But it was too late to stop the project from happening. The company had already purchased the land and begun initial stages of blasting and construction.

By the 1930’s Georgia Power had bought more than forty additional miles of the Chattooga River and had plans for even more dams along its course. They leased this land in the meantime to private fishing clubs. During this time there was relatively little boating activity here and paddlers and anglers regularly clashed over the use of the river. In the late 1960’s and early 70’s anglers and concerned locals came together and urged Congress to protect the river as a pristine fishery. In 1968 the Ellicott Rock area on the upper Chattooga was given Wilderness designation. Then in 1974 the river itself was designated Wild and Scenic, putting a stop to any further development and logging within the protected river corridor. The responsibility to enforce this federal protection lies with the Forest Service and Department of Natural Resources (DNR) of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. This monumental victory is the primary reason why the Chattooga remains undammed and free-flowing for fifty-seven miles until it reaches Lake Tugaloo.

The surrounding waterways were not so lucky. By the mid 1980’s there were 14 major hydroelectric projects in the Savannah River basin, turning it into a 300-mile system of lakes, one after another. Each one severs the migration of fish from one section of river to the next and ultimately from the sea, and restricts the flow of nutrients and sediment from steep mountain streams to once rich and fertile wetlands.

This process of turning free-flowing streams into giant artificial lakes altered the landscape and destroyed native fish populations, requiring people to build hatcheries and introduce non-native species. At the time these dams were built there was no concern for what would happen to these fish. None of the North Georgia dams were built with fish passage to allow them to pass from one section to the next. Old growth forests were being logged on the Chattooga River at that time and hundreds of acres had to be cut and removed from the construction sites and inundation zones which would become the lakes. Cliffs were dynamited for quarries and preparation for anchoring the dams into the rock. At the time, little was known about the native plant species that would be destroyed, such as Trillium Persistens, which is now classified as an Endangered Species. An official count was never done and the historic numbers of Trillium and other rare species that were lost remains uncertain. During the last re-licensing process in 1996, there were 23 listed Endangered and Threatened Species living within the project vicinity. These included the Eastern Cougar, Bald Eagle, Peregrin Falcon, White Fringeless Orchid, Bog Turtle, and Green Salamander. These lakes were touted by the Georgia Power Company as being more beautiful than the original rivers and a source of recreation and power. Today they have proven to be something much less desirable.

When a dam is built on a free-flowing river it traps sediment behind it, and any other material washed down from the river including harmful runoff. Slowly, the reservoir fills with sludge and its total water storage capacity diminishes. This eventually decreases the hydropower and flood control capabilities of the dam. In the case of Lake Tugaloo this process has been happening since 1923, ninety-four years. By 2036 it will have been 113 years!
As the sludge builds up, organic material breaks down and produces Methane (CH4), a greenhouse gas. This takes the form of bubbles rising up from the bottom of the lake to escape into the atmosphere. During hot summer months and when lake levels are down you see it the most. Since greenhouse gases increase global warming, the process is cyclic: climate change analysis of the Southeastern U.S. show extended droughts and record high temperatures. This exacerbates the effects on water temperature and quality, especially in manmade reservoirs where the water sits still, unable to cool itself, increasing methane production. When the rivers feeding the reservoir run low during droughts, it limits the amount of energy the dam’s power house can generate.

Now consider some other contents of this lake sediment, runoff from towns and farms. High levels of Fecal Coliform were detected in Lake Tugaloo during studies leading up to the re-licensing process, but with no one from the community to stand up and demand a more thorough examination of those findings it was not considered a big enough problem. This was in 1988. 

Fecal Coliform is responsible for human health issues and can indicate the presence of other more harmful bacteria associated with skin problems and gastrointestinal illnesses. Fecal Coliform in Lake Tugaloo originates from poor wastewater management in the City of Clayton, Georgia. It enters Stekoa Creek, a major unprotected tributary of the Chattooga running right through town. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists Stekoa Creek as a polluted waterway under the Clean Water Act. Along its course the creek receives runoff from farms containing herbicides and pesticides. These chemicals continue to leach into the groundwater even after their use has stopped and settle at the bottom of Lake Tugaloo. For over twenty years the Chattooga Conservancy, working through grants and donations, has carried out projects to restore Stekoa Creek and other areas of the Chattooga watershed. They have worked vigorously to raise awareness about the condition of the water and have helped the city to put forth to clean up the creek and improve its wastewater treatment facilities, though the pre-existing damage to the river remains largely unchallenged.

Lake Tugaloo currently has a fish consumption advisory posted on line by the Georgia and South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) for Largemouth Bass and Black Crappie, both due to Methylmercury (MeHg). Mercury emissions from Coal fired plants and fossil fuel combustion goes from the air into the water and is consumed by microbes living in hydroelectric reservoirs, transforming it into Methylmercury. Through a process called bioaccumulation, this toxin is found in high amounts in the top fish of the lakes. When we eat fish containing Methylmercury, over 95% is absorbed into our blood and penetrates the cells in any tissue or organs. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding are at most risk. Whoever manages a waterway assumes the responsibility to post consumption advisories at boat ramps and access points to alert the public. Since the lake and surrounding land is owned by Georgia Power it would be up to them to make these postings. So far they have not.

There has never been an official study of the environmental or public health impacts of the lake’s sediment. Tearing down a dam won’t stop Mercury emissions or wastewater issues in towns, but the removal of the sediment, either by people and/or the natural erosive forces of the river, reverses the concentrative effects of impoundment. The free-flowing river would not allow as much organic material to settle and decay on the bottom, and thus methane could not be produced. The Fecal Coliform and any other bacteria would be deprived of the lake conditions they need to flourish and would become diluted in the moving water to much reduced concentrations. The microbes responsible for Mercury entering the food chain would also be robbed of their ideal environment and their effects would diminish.

Ultimately, removing just one dam from this group will not bring back native fish populations or restore natural flows to the entire Savannah River. Only the combined efforts of many projects from the mountains to the sea will accomplish that. What removal of the Tugalo can accomplish is preparing the respective river section for the return of those species. It would be a mistake to re-introduce fish into an unstuitable environment after so much work has been done to bring them back. They must be given every chance at survival we can offer them. Further, just as restoring the project site would improve the surrounding environment, the uncovered river bed would help further scientific knowledge of these ancient rivers.

Dams are considered “installations containing dangerous forces” under International Humanitarian Law. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Association of Dam Safety classifies dams according to the risk for loss of life and property in the event of a failure.

Tugalo Dam, like many large, aging dams, is classified “High Hazard Potential.”

Advancing age makes dams more susceptible to failure. The average age of U.S. dams is fifty-three years or older. Tallulah Dam is twice that age. The Nacoochee Dam is the youngest of the project. Completed in 1927, it is ninety years old. By 2027 all six dams of the North Georgia Hydro Group will be 100 years old or older. There are now 84,000 dams in the U.S.

According to the National Inventory of Dams, Georgia has 5,132 dams, the third most of any State after Texas and Kansas. Of those five thousand, nearly 500 are classified “High Hazard.” In 2013 Georgia had 614 dams for every safety worker, compared to 43.5 in Florida, 152 in Tennessee, and 188 in North Carolina. 

30% of all dam failures in the U.S. in the last seventy-five years were due to “overtopping,” when the flooded rivers upstream fill the lake beyond its capacity and pour over the top of the dam. This erodes the sides and the foundations, weakening the dam until it breaks. A buildup of sediment like that in Tugaloo displaces the lake’s total water storage capacity, effectively making the lake smaller and less able to handle a flood. Like other major dams, Tugalo was built with gated spillways at the top to allow water to flow through when its penstocks are at maximum flow. The last time these gates were opened to alleviate high flows was January 2016. Water data from this event shows the Chattooga and Tallulah River flows were nowhere near the historic record floods. According to USGS water data, the record high flow for the Chattooga River was between 25,000 and 30,000 cubic feet of water per second (cfs) in 1940. The highest flow recorded at the Tugalo Dam was an estimated 36,000 cfs in 1973.

The floods which these dams were built to withstand are not the floods of today, and the reservoir’s total capacity is much smaller than it was 100 years ago. Floods are measured not just in flow but in duration.

Climate change has not only made our droughts more severe in the Southeast but our floods too.

The majority of sediment in a lake is placed there during times of the highest flows, when the river scours its banks and tears away soil, rocks, and trees. Over time this has filled the lake with a huge amount of material, especially in its delta where the Chattooga enters it. The water in this uppermost mile and a half is now only a few feet deep. When lake levels are lowered by the dam, these artificial sandbars are exposed with only narrow, inches-deep channels of water flowing through them. In one particularly shallow section recreational paddlers must drag their boats over a hundred yards of sediment to reach deeper water, and fishing boats with outboard motors are confined to a smaller, deeper area of the lake. Some fish that were able to travel between the lake and the river above are trapped in the warm still waters until the lake levels return to full pool, which may be months. This contradicts the 597 acres of prime fishing and recreation the lake was promised to provide.

If age and sediment buildup diminishes a dam’s ability to handle a flood, the dam can no longer perform the functions it was built for. A dam failure actually results in less predictable flood scenarios than a natural flood event. As time goes on the costs of dam repair get higher, and so do the potential costs of having one fail.

The costs of removing them are high, but it is an expense more on peoples’ terms rather than the rivers’:

Once a dam fails, people are forced to deal with whatever disastrous, long-lasting consequences that result. When we choose to preemptively solve the problem, it can be done on a more convenient time frame in carefully planned phases in order to reduce further impacts. The Elwha River dam removal project began with a ten year environmental impact study and cost a staggering $300 million, including purchase and demolition of the facilities, sediment management, and hazardous material disposal. The Klamath River dam removal project is expected to cost more. In some cases, large groups form to raise money for these projects. American Rivers is a hugely successful river restoration group with numerous dam removals to their credit. Some power companies are required by state or federal regulators to have a decommission fund for their dams, though Georgia Power is currently not required to have one for their North Georgia dams. The question people must ask is what is safety worth to them? The power company will tell people the dams are safe.

There is nothing safe about a century-old concrete wall holding back 500 million cubic feet of lake water and sediment.

Alternative flood control strategies are currently being used by the Army Corps of Engineers on the Mississippi River, where some of the country’s most devastating historical floods have occurred. This is because they have realized that traditional dams and levees don’t stand up against such a force of nature in the long run. Adjustable flood gates, removal of obstructions, and moving levees further back are all part of a new approach to our existence with this massive river. Similar systems can be incorporated into the various flood management plans on the Savannah and its tributaries.

Fish habitat restoration projects have been underway along many sections of the Savannah River basin for decades. These take many forms, from small volunteer groups to fully-funded federal programs. Carried out carefully, this will eventually help native fish and other wildlife to return to the upper mountain streams in abundant and sustainable numbers. We will see the return of a more natural ecosystem. These projects take a long time, and in many ways it is an unending job. But it is necessary. Dam removal is just one (Big) part of the restoration process.

Georgia Power and its parent Southern company are currently researching wind as a renewable resource and are supplementing its energy services with wind power and solar. They currently purchase 250 Megawatts from windfarms in Oklahoma, which is sent through transmission lines over hundreds of miles to be distributed to their customers here in Georgia. By comparison that amount is roughly 50% more than the total generating capacity of the entire North Georgia Hydro Group.

Georgia’s communities have had a slow start in their relationship with wind energy, but the technology is becoming more efficient and more Southeastern states are embracing its potential. Since 1998 the average capacity of wind turbines in the U.S. has increased by 170% due to larger structures with longer, lighter blades. Wind energy represents 43% of all new electric additions and $25 billion in U.S. investments. In 2010, Towns County Schools in Hiawassee, Georgia installed a turbine on their campus funded through various partnerships. In 2012, the Energy Department reported 72% of all U.S. wind installations were made by domestic manufacturers. In 2013, there were nearly 500 jobs in Georgia provided by this industry.

Nationally, the wind sector employs an estimated 80,000 Americans. The Port of Savannah’s Ocean Terminal is a transportation hub for wind energy equipment. 

Our acceptance of this technology will depend largely on its cost benefits outweighing those of the existing infrastructure. The annual dam –related expenses and revenue will be measured against those of an increasingly efficient, truly renewable resource. With any major power generating endeavor, there are compromises which the company and its customers must be willing to accept. In the case of dams, it is numerous environmental, public health and safety concerns. With windfarms, it is the amount of land needed for dozens of turbines. Montezuma Hills Windfarm in California produces 180 Megawatts and uses 6,800 acres, compared to the North Georgia Hydro Group which produces 166 Megawatts and impounds over 4,800 acres of lakes. Geography and wind turbine design are big factors in how much energy can be generated at a windfarm.

Solar energy technology has also been available to citizens for decades. Georgia Power now offers its customers solar power options. Atlanta and many other communities in the Southeast are taking advantage of this resource. While solar installations typically do not offer the high energy generating capacity like wind turbines, their easy use and practically zero environmental impact is a major selling point to thousands of people looking to soften their energy bills. The cost of installing Solar units has dropped 60% in the last ten years. The Solar industry currently employs 260,000 Americans. Utilized in all 50 states, there are now 1.3 million Solar installations in the U.S.

Compared to land use requirements of both hydroelectric reservoirs and wind farms, solar installations are the least demanding. The average total land use for solar plants is 8.9 acres per Megawatt. While location and geography vary greatly for hydro and wind facilities, they commonly require 30 to 40 acres of land per Megawatt. Solar panel repair costs are also lower than any other energy resource, and their replacement does not require decades-long, multi-million dollar environmental productions like dam removals do.

The local recreation and tourism-based economic benefits the lakes are said to provide would not suffer with the removal of one or more of these dams. On the contrary, the economy would be boosted by visitors coming to enjoy the newly restored river. Anglers prefer a cool, free-flowing river because it supports a healthier, more diverse fish population.

The biggest driving force behind the current federal protection of the Chattooga River is based on the principal that a less-impacted, undeveloped environment makes for a better fishing experience.

The absence of motorboats which are allowed on Lake Tugaloo would improve air quality and solitude. For whitewater enthusiasts, the Chattooga is referred to as “the Crown Jewel of the Southeast.” Boaters around the world often express tremendous support for dam removal projects and would come to the river to challenge themselves in rapids which were never run before the lakes inundated the area. Little information exists about those rapids, but the average gradient and geologic makeup of the river bed suggests features similar to Section 3 and 4 of the Chattooga. 

There are no houses, only two long, gravel roads accessing the lake, and the only property owner is Georgia Power. This already makes for a quiet escape where one can spend all day without seeing another person, especially during Winter and Spring. If the restored river were to be included in a protective land management program it would serve to extend an already priceless wilderness area. Hardwood trees, River Cain, and other native species could be transplanted and repopulate for the first time since logging wiped them out 150 years ago.

Dam removal is one of the biggest social issues of our time. These massive structures were once a symbol of American ingenuity and have been a part of our lives for generations. This is the origin of the myth that “dams have been here for so long they aren’t going away any time soon.” No two dams are exactly the same, and as more are removed the litigation process is backed up with documented positive results and demolition techniques become more advanced and streamlined. In some cases, thousands of fish and other animals were removed from lakes and downstream areas to avoid mass killings. This is an immense effort, and still cannot guarantee a painless transformation.

Removing a dam must be viewed as an ecological disturbance. As the water table reverts back to a more natural level, certain trees and riparian vegetation will die and others will take their place. Some birds, otters, turtles, frogs, and other land animals will be forced to relocate in order to survive, while freshwater mussels and other invertebrates could experience near 100% mortality rates. Newly-suspended sediments in the water column move downstream, which can have both positive and negative consequences. While the added nutrients may help streambanks and certain organisms to thrive, a massive amount of it can threaten other species and municipal drinking water sources. While the sediment can and should be tested prior to removing a dam, it can still contain hard to detect deposits of phosphorous or other contaminants.

These problems must all be addressed during the planning stages of dam removals.

This pales in comparison to the original environmental impacts of building the dams and lakes in the first place, but we have to take a harder look at this issue now and every consequence must be considered.

Signing this petition does not mean you support putting a problem off on someone else, some downstream community. It does not mean you have to support wind or solar energy. It does not mean you want people to lose their property or their jobs. It does not mean you support creating dangerous, uncertain conditions which threaten human life or wildlife. It means you support dealing with this problem in a local way as part of a broader effort to restore the river. It will ultimately be up to Georgia Power, federal regulators, and teams of specialists to decide the best way to achieve this goal. This includes biologists, geologists, engineers, and decision makers from the forest service and local government. Signing this petition means you assume a progressive attitude towards our future, and it means you are openly challenging a long standing dynamic.

This petition proposes that the Georgia Power Company and Southern Company, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Rabun County lawmakers, Georgia State legislatures, and any relevant third parties:

*Conduct more extensive, thorough studies of the environmental, public health, and socio- economic impacts of this project

*Consider removal of the Tugalo Dam, its powerhouse, and potentially other installations of the North Georgia Hydroelectric Group as the best solution

*Hold open meetings in Northeast Georgia for the purposes of education and gathering public opinion

*Include a restoration plan for the reclaimed stream and river banks

*Consider land management options to further protect this area



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