19 November 2007—We’ve all heard those stories about some tiny endangered creature holding up a big engineering project. Sometimes concern about the fish or toad is really at the heart of the dispute. Sometimes it’s just an excuse in the hands of people who really want to stop the project for other reasons entirely. One of the most memorable examples was the 1970s controversy that pitted a big hydroelectric dam that was to be built on Tennessee’s Clinch River against the snail darter, a little endangered fish native to eastern Tennessee.
This story, however, is not about an endangered species torpedoing a big project; it’s about some endangered mussels actually protecting a nuclear power plant. It’s also a story about the drought afflicting the southeastern United States, the imminent threat to Atlanta’s water supply, and the danger that as lake and river waters fall, there might not be enough cooling water for the four nuclear power plants that provide much of Georgia’s and Alabama’s electricity. And it’s a story with a lot of unusual names in it.
Much of the drinking water for greater Atlanta’s 3.8 million residents comes from Lake Lanier, a huge reservoir north of Atlanta and one of five built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers along the Chattahoochee River system. As it flows south, the Chattahoochee feeds into the Apalachicola River in North Florida, home of the fat threeridge and purple bankclimber mussels, the former of which is ”endangered,” and the latter ”threatened.”
In recent months, despite Atlanta’s dwindling water supplies, the corps has had to release enormous amounts of water into the Chattahoochee-Apalachicola system to protect the mussels. But at the end of last week, on 16 November, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ruled that the Army can cut back on the amount of Lake Lanier water it’s diverting to save the small-fry, in effect preserving water for Atlanta. Naturally, Georgia’s Governor Sonny Perdue hailed the decision. Naturally, Florida’s Governor Charlie Crist will challenge it. (Florida depends on Chattahoochee water to protect not just its mussels but also a whole seafood industry.)
Florida isn’t the only state that might suffer to slake Atlanta’s thirst. Alabama’s Joseph M. Farley nuclear power plant, a two-unit complex on the Chattahoochee that provides Alabamans with about 20 percent of their electricity, depends on the river system for cooling water and other water needs. Up to now the Army’s diversion of Lanier water into the Chattahoochee-Apalachicola system to protect Florida’s mussels has coincidentally guaranteed the Farley nuclear station enough water. But if water reductions in that system get really drastic, might the plant have to power down?
So far, according to the office of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Region II (Atlanta), Alabama and Georgia’s nuclear power plants have not been much affected by drought conditions. NRC spokesperson Ken Clark says that generally river levels have held up all right, though lake levels have been very low, and so the region’s plants have been running near full capacity despite the drought. This is also the case for Georgia’s two Hatch units on the Altamaha River, its two Vogtle units on the Savannah River, and Alabama’s three Browns Ferry units on the Tennessee River, as well as its 1776-megawatt Farley station on the Chattahoochee.
A spokesperson for the Farley power plant says that it has stayed in close touch with the Corps of Engineers on water reductions and that the 127-cubic-meter-per-second cut authorized by the Fish and Wildlife Service should not be a problem. Farley requires 56.6 cubic m/s3 to meet all its water needs, and that flow is supposedly guaranteed by an agreement reached by the three governors in 2003.
If Farley’s cooling supply is threatened after all, might Alabama end up siding with Florida and threaten Atlanta? Well, even if that unlikely scenario were to materialize and Atlantans perished from thirst, it would not be the threeridge and bankclimber that were to blame. Rather, the culprit would be the big Farley nuclear power plant that the two mussels have been protecting.