Commander: An open letter on Savannah River Basin drought management

Published Oct. 31, 2014

Editor's Note: Since entering drought level 1 some stakeholders in the upper basin have written urging Savannah District leaders should take immediate and dramatic actions to preserve reservoir levels. Col. Thomas Tickner, the District Commander addresses these emails in this open-letter posting. 

Thank you for your recent input and your views on managing the Savannah River basin. As my staff and I have said many times, we take this responsibility very seriously. I have assigned top-notch experts to oversee the actions we take to keep the multiple purposes of the river balanced.

We manage water in the basin under our Water Manual of 1996 and under the most recent Drought Management Plan (2012). We created both plans using input from our primary partners in the basin, the State of Georgia and the State of South Carolina. The states own the water in the reservoir system and in the river, which gives the states a major voice in how we manage the system. We collected input from local governments, industry, utilities and other stakeholders including the general public as we worked on the plans.

Our current drought plan sets progressively lower outflows as we enter each drought condition. While this may not satisfy everyone in the basin, it balances the multiple congressionally-set purposes of the reservoirs. The plan also ensures shared benefit and shared sacrifice for residents in the upper and lower basins. This does not mean we will never change the plans. We are always looking for ways to improve the system. However, the time to make changes is not at the whim of one individual or even based on one stakeholder group. ‎It is through collective study and thorough analysis. Changes have been made in this way to make operation of the Savannah River System better over the years.

Currently both states, The Nature Conservancy and the Savannah District are jointly conducting another phase in the Savannah River Comprehensive Study. In the current phase of the Comp Study the group will evaluate the possibility of initiating a 3,600 cubic feet per second (cfs) outflow at drought level 1. The group will also look at lowering that to 3,100 cfs during the winter months. This phase of the study will also examine alternate refill strategies. Completion of this phase of the Comp Study is still more than a year away. Future phases of the Comp Study will follow as funding becomes available from the federal and non-federal sources.

Contrary to what some would like us to do, Congress never authorized the Corps of Engineers to take unilateral actions to modify operations of river basins. I can’t simply order changes to the water management operations or changes to the drought plan. Federal law requires intense study of impacts to the environment (including the human environment) before taking such actions.

Again, thank you for your continuing concern for the management of the Savannah River basin. The Savannah District, the states and all the stakeholders in the basin must cooperate to keep the basin needs balanced and available for the benefit of all users.

Colonel, US Army
Commander, Savannah District