The lakes along the Savannah River Basin are a vital part of our community. Lakes Hartwell, Thurmond, and Russell attract thousands of visitors each year. In addition to serving as economic engines for the region, these three lakes provide clean, safe drinking water to thousands of residents. Unfortunately, the severe drought facing the Upstate is threatening our lakes and negatively impacting our local economies.
Record low rainfall in the area has pushed our lakes to their lowest levels in more than two decades. There appears to be no relief in sight as the National Weather Service has predicted that temperatures over the next three months will be unusually warm while precipitation will remain below average.
To make matters worse, the Army Corps of Engineers, who oversees the outflow of water from these lakes into the Savannah River, is required to operate under what I believe is an outdated and broken set of policies known as the
Drought Contingency Plan. According to the Drought Contingency Plan for a level three drought, Lakes Hartwell, Thurmond, and Russell must release 3600 cubic feet of water per second into the Savannah River.
The question on my mind and on the minds of many in our District is a simple one; why can’t the Corps reduce the outflow from these lakes that are already at dangerously low levels?
Several months ago our office started looking into the issue. Finding the answer to that relatively simple question was a slow and frustrating process, but what we discovered was surprising. Essentially, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), under authority of the Endangered Species Act, prohibits the Corps of Engineers from reducing outflow rates below 3600cfs in order to protect the short-nosed sturgeon, an endangered species of fish that lives in the Savannah River.
Once we knew what the problem was, our goal became finding a solution. Through numerous letters, phone calls, and meetings, our office worked to get NOAA to allow for a temporary reduction in the outflow rate by 500cfs for all three lakes from November 2008 to February 2009. This temporary reduction bought us some time to find a more permanent solution.
On December 22, 2008, I sent a letter to the Corps asking that they continue the reduced outflow rate for as long as possible past January. Additionally, the states of South Carolina and Georgia echoed my request in formal letters to the Corps. The Corps responded stating that they would do everything they could to ensure the reduced outflow rate continued beyond January.
Last week, we received word that NOAA refused the Corps’ request to continue the lower release rate of 3100cfs. I am extremely disappointed and frustrated with this decision given that NOAA has no conclusive evidence that the short-nosed sturgeon would be adversely affected by the reduced outflows. While NOAA may be uncertain of how its actions affect the
short-nosed sturgeon, I am certain that their refusal to comply with our request to continue reduced outflows will have a serious negative impact on our lakes and the surrounding communities. NOAA’s protectionist view fails to meet the standards of good stewardship found in collaboratively conserving precious resources. Unlike the citizens of our state who are wisely conserving water, NOAA is showing little regard for making similar short-term sacrifices for a resource that impacts all our interests.
Today, I sent a letter to Mary Glackin, Acting Director of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, asking her to reconsider NOAA’s decision requiring the Corps’ to increase release levels from 3100cfs. NOAA’s action jeopardizes the safety of our families and the economy of each community surrounding the lakes. If you would like to read
this letter in its entirety, you can do so by clicking
In addition to looking for continued temporary relief, I am working towards a long-term solution. To that end, I met with General Schroedel, regional leader for the Army Corps of Engineers, on January 11, 2009 to address my concerns about flaws in the Drought Contingency Plan. General Schroedel and I had a productive meeting, and I remain optimistic that much-needed reforms to the Drought Contingency Plan will be made. However, adjustments to the Drought Contingency Plan are only part of the solution. I am considering introducing legislation that will amend the Endangered Species Act in a manner that would allow for the protection of our lakes and water supplies.
As we continue to make progress on this important issue, I am committed to keeping you up-to-date and informed. I will issue regular updates via email and post important information regarding the situation on our website,
I want you to know that I understand and share the frustration surrounding the drought, and I will continue to do all that I can to find an immediate and temporary fix while working towards a long-term solution. Should ever have any question about this issue and our efforts, please feel free to contact our office at (202) 225-5301.
J. Gresham Barrett
Member of Congress
P.S. To make your opinion known on this important issue, please call Mary Glackin, the Deputy Under Secretary for NOAA, at (202) 482-4569 or email her at