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Santee River "Most Endangered"

April 13, 2005
By: Amy Souers Kober

Santee # 6 on annual list released today

(Washington, D.C.) American Rivers and its partner named South Carolina’s Santee River as one of the nation’s Most Endangered Rivers for 2005, citing Santee Cooper’s reluctance to alter hydropower dam operations that are damaging the river and the surrounding forest. The annual America’s Most Endangered Rivers report, now in its twentieth year, highlights rivers facing the most uncertain futures rather than the worst chronic problems. The conservation groups called on state regulators to stand up to the utility and demand that some of the water be put back in the Santee River.

The Santee has been called South Carolina’s ‘forgotten river,’ said Rebecca R. Wodder, president of American Rivers. With a little more cooperation from Santee Cooper, it could be an unforgettable river.

The state-owned electric and water utility Santee-Cooper operates an expansive system of dams, canals, and reservoirs on the Santee River. Under most circumstances, the utility allows just 3 percent of the natural water volume into the Santee River. Instead, most of the water is redirected into the adjacent Cooper River, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean in Charleston harbor.

With river flows significantly reduced, much of the rich, flooded bottomland forests of the Santee River basin are transforming into an ordinary forest of oaks and sycamores, and many of the river’s back channels have dried up. The Santee’s fish population has plummeted to the point where scientists had to examine other coastal rivers to determine which fish species should be found in the river.

The excessive degradation of the river also affects the state’s economy. Despite boat ramps and trails to the Santee, fishing is poor and recreational use is low. Outdoor recreation plays a large role in South Carolina’s economy, and could play an even bigger role if the Santee River was the river it has the potential to be.

As a state-owned utility, Santee Cooper is supposed to represent the public, said Gerrit Jöbsis with the Coastal Conservation League. But by starving the Santee River from its own water, Santee Cooper is not representing the interests of South Carolinians.

For decades, the hydropower dam complex has drained the Santee River virtually dry, as permitted by its hydropower license-but it doesn’t have to be that way forever. The Santee Cooper’s license for the hydropower project will expire on March 31, 2006. The re-licensing process will be an opportunity for the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) to require changes that will restore much of the Santee’s diversity and richness.

In a 2002 survey, 89 percent of South Carolina residents reported that they thought it was very important that freshwater resources must be safe and well protected in South Carolina. Yet despite the values of state residents, Santee Cooper is reluctant to return more water to the river.

During 2005, Santee Cooper will release an analysis of the benefits of restoring flows to the Santee River. Santee Cooper put up resistance to conduct this study in the first place, although even a modest increase in flows would revitalize much of the floodplain forest, fill back channels, lead to a rebounding of fish and wildlife populations, and increase recreational opportunities along the Santee River. The conservation groups called on DHEC regulators to scrutinize the document to determine the flows needed to restore this public treasure and stand firm against Santee Cooper during the re-licensing negotiation on the utility’s environmental responsibility at its hydroelectric dams.

The poor condition of the Santee River reflects badly on the utility that shares its name, Wodder said.

The outcome of the Santee Cooper re-licensing will set the tone for future hydropower negotiations in South Carolina. Following the Santee Cooper utility, Duke Power, SC Electric and Gas, Progress Energy, and Alcoa are slated to re-license 18 more dams affecting rivers throughout the state. The conservation groups warned that if state regulators don’t stand up to Santee Cooper, the other utilities will also take advantage and resist steps to restore other rivers in South Carolina.

About America’s Most Endangered Rivers
Each year, American Rivers solicits nominations from thousands of river groups, environmental organizations, outdoor clubs, local governments, and taxpayer watchdogs for the America’s Most Endangered Rivers report. The report highlights the rivers facing the most uncertain futures rather than those suffering from the worst chronic problems. The report presents alternatives to proposals that would damage rivers, identifies those who make the crucial decisions, and points out opportunities for the public to take action on behalf of each listed river.

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