Tag Archives: Reservoirs

The Direction of the State’s Water Quality Program

September 19, 2013.  Earlier posts talked about two unusual recent  decisions by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) on Section 401 water quality certifications  under the Clean Water Act — one concerning  Cleveland County’s proposal to build a new dam on the First Broad River to create a reservoir and the other for federal relicensing of Alcoa’s existing hydroelectric power dams on the Yadkin River.  You can find the Cleveland County  post here and the Alcoa post here.  The question is what those two decisions  say about the current direction of the water quality program.

The  decision to waive the water quality certification for the proposed Cleveland County reservoir — the first deliberate waiver in the history of the N.C. water quality program — cited  a state rule requiring  a decision on a 401 application within 60 days. But  the Cleveland County application was not complete and DENR made no effort to go through the review process (which would have  required an environmental impact statement and a public notice).  As reported in the Charlotte Observer, Division of Water Resources Director Tom Reeder gave a different explanation of the waiver: “The state of North Carolina looked at all of this and said there’s really no value added to us getting involved in this whole thing. Cleveland County would have had to spend more money that would not go to any good purpose.”  The implication was that a state water quality review would add more time and cost when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (as the federal permitting agency) opposed the project — even though the state water quality review and the federal permit review usually go hand in hand and rely on the same environmental studies.

Where the Cleveland County project  proposed construction of a new dam;  Alcoa applied for a state water quality certification to cover continued operation of four existing dams on the Yadkin River that were built between 50 and 100 years ago to generate power for the now-closed Alcoa aluminum smelting plant. After nearly a year of review and a public hearing, DENR suddenly denied the Alcoa 401 Certification. The denial letter cited a state rule requiring the  applicant to have title to the project site, the permission of the property owner or the  ability to acquire the property by condemnation.  DENR relied on a lawsuit (filed the same day) claiming state public trust ownership of  the bed of the Yadkin River under the Alcoa dams to conclude that Alcoa  could not show title to the land  under the dams. According to the letter, the lack of either title or permission from the state would make it difficult to assure that Alcoa could meet water quality conditions on operation of the dams.

The earlier posts talked about a number of questions raised by the two decisions. There are also a few things to take away:

DENR has waived a 401 Certification without clearly explaining the reason for the waiver or how waiver decisions will be made in the future.   The decision letter suggests the waiver resulted from DENR’s inability to make a decision within 60 days, but the record shows no attempt to get the additional information needed to make the application complete, provide a public notice of the application or do a complete review.  The  Division of Water Resources director later suggested that  state review would have served no purpose given the Corps of Engineers’ objections to the project. Either reason could also easily apply to other 401 applications.

As to the first explanation,  DENR denied the Alcoa 401 application one month later  after nearly a year of review  with no suggestion that water quality rules required a waiver.  The second reason offered for the waiver (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opposition) also applies to other projects. The Corps of Engineers often presses federal permit  applicants to look at other alternatives with fewer environmental impacts.   The Corps expressed similar skepticism about the City of Raleigh’s  proposal to build a reservoir on the Little River, but in that case DENR has continued to work with  Raleigh and the Corps of Engineers to look at alternatives and  address the Corps’ concerns.  The same has been true for other large commercial development projects.

DENR treated the Cleveland County reservoir project differently, but has not provided a consistent explanation of the decision or criteria for future 401 Certification waivers.

Denial of  a 401 Certification based on an unresolved claim of public trust ownership of the river bed under the project has implications well beyond Alcoa.   If there is a case to be made for public trust ownership of the upper reaches of the Yadkin River,  the same will be true for  many of the state’s inland rivers. The decision may have implications for  dam  sites proposed by Cleveland County and the City of Raleigh (on the First Broad River and the Little River respectively).

Title to the bed of the Yadkin River under the Alcoa dams  has not yet been determined by the courts, but DENR issues both Individual and general 401 Certifications for a wide range of projects  known to be on state-owned  public trust lands — including mining activities, utility and energy infrastructure, marinas, aquaculture operations, shoreline stabilization projects, water intakes, and dams.  The justification for denial of the Alcoa 401 Certification — that lack of ownership or permission from the state to apply  calls into question the applicant’s ability to comply with water quality conditions — would apply equally to those projects.

DENR has not explained what evidence of title will be required of applicants proposing to construct a project in navigable waters.    A deed to submerged lands may or may not be valid. See the earlier post on public trust doctrine for more explanation of public trust ownership and the way title to state-owned public trust lands can be transferred.   But the existence — or absence — of a state lawsuit claiming title under the public trust doctrine cannot be the deciding factor either.  Public trust ownership does not arise because of a state lawsuit; it is not negated by the absence of one.  Having made public trust ownership a factor in the issuance of 401 Certifications, DENR needs a clear and consistent approach to resolving questions of title to lands under coastal waters and navigable rivers; otherwise the outcomes will be arbitrary and subject to political influence.

The Alcoa denial letter suggests that Alcoa needs specific state permission to apply for a 401 Certification to continue operating the Yadkin hydropower dams, but does not indicate what form that permission must take. Some  activities on state-owned public trust lands have individual submerged lands leases from the State Property Office, but many do not. The state has often relied on environmental permits as the permission to develop on state-owned submerged lands.  It isn’t even clear whether a previous  lease to construct on state-owned public trust lands would be sufficient, since the state’s lawsuit claiming ownership of the Yadkin river admits that Alcoa had permission to build the four dams.

The precedent set by the Alcoa denial could apply to a number of  ongoing commercial activities in coastal waters and state rivers.  One of the (several) interesting things about the Alcoa decision is that it dealt with renewal of an operating license for dams built decades ago with state permission. The DENR denial letter suggests that the state must give express permission for the renewal of licenses and permits for ongoing operations on state-owned public trust lands — activities that could include aquaculture, marina operations, sand mining and other commercial activities. The criteria for granting or denying permission will be another question.

The troubling thing about the Cleveland County and Alcoa decisions is the reliance on rule interpretations that not only break with past practice, but are inconsistent with each other.  With respect to the waiver of a 401 Certification under the 60-day rule, DENR needs to reconcile the Cleveland County and Alcoa decisions. If opposition by the Corps of Engineers was the real reason for the Cleveland County waiver, DENR should explain the criteria for waiver in situation where the Corps has pressed an applicant for alternatives. DENR also needs to  provide  guidance to applicants proposing projects in coastal waters and inland rivers.  Otherwise,  applicants will have little assurance of a clear, consistent and predictable water quality review.

The Uses of a Water Quality Certification: Cleveland County Reservoir

September 3, 2013.  First a disclaimer: This post will be the first of  a series  on two recent decisions by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR)  on water quality certifications requested under  Section 401 of the Clean Water Act.   Both  decisions  have been appealed; these posts should not be taken as legal advice to  parties  in these or other cases.

This post explains  how  Section 401  of the Clean Water Act works  and describes DENR’s decision to waive the 401 Certification for a Cleveland County reservoir project. The next  post will cover DENR’s denial of a 401 Certification for Alcoa’s hydroelectric dams on the Yadkin River. The last  post in the series will  talk about the implications of the  Cleveland County and Alcoa decisions for  DENR’s water quality certification program.  Individually, the decisions are unprecedented; together, the decisions send a very confusing message about DENR’s implementation of Section 401 of the  Clean Water Act.

First, a little background on water quality certifications. Under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act, an applicant for a federal license or permit that involves any discharge to navigable waters   must  provide the federal  agency with a certification that the activity  will comply with the water quality standards of the state where the project will be built.  Examples of a “discharge” include piping  wastewater  to a stream or river;  putting fill material in the water to build a structure like a dam or bulkhead; and releasing water through a hydroelectric dam.  A number of  federal permits can trigger the need for a “401 Certification”; the most common may be permits under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act to  fill navigable waters;  permits issued under Section 10 of  the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899  for structures in navigable waters; and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) licenses  to build or operate  hydroelectric dams.

One important thing to know about a 401 Certification: the state water quality  review does not simply duplicate the federal  permitting process.  The federal  permit decision often focuses on one part of the  project and may or may not include consideration of water quality impacts.  Under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act,   the state is charged to look at all of the  activity’s   water quality impacts — including impacts beyond the scope of the federal permit — in deciding whether  the activity will meet water quality standards.  The U.S. Supreme Court  confirmed  the broad scope of a state  401 Certification  in  PUD #1 of Jefferson County v. Washington State Dept. of Environmental Quality, 114 S.Ct. 1900, 128 L.Ed.2d 716 (1994).    The state rarely stamps a 401 application “approved” as submitted. More often, the  state’s 401 Certification identifies operating conditions and mitigation measures needed to prevent  a water quality violation. The federal permit then incorporates  the state’s water quality conditions and mitigation requirements.

Cleveland County Reservoir.   Cleveland County has been  trying to get a  Section 404 permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to  dam the First Broad River and create a reservoir since at least 2005.  To  issue a  Section 404 permit,   the Corps of Engineers has to find that there is no less environmentally damaging alternative that can  meet the project’s intended purpose. Cleveland County has  argued that the reservoir project is necessary to supply drinking water for the county, but the  Corps of Engineers has not been persuaded that a reservoir is the least environmentally damaging alternative.  There appear to be other drinking water sources available to Cleveland County —  including the purchase of water from existing water systems with excess supply.

The Corps expressed  concerns about the Cleveland County reservoir project from the beginning, but entered into an agreement with the county describing how a  federal permit application would be processed.  An early step would have to be preparation of an Environmental Impact  Statement (EIS) in consultation with the Corps of Engineers to satisfy  the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).  Since 2005,  little progress has been made on the federal permit application and EIS, but in late April Cleveland County sent DENR’s Division of Water Quality an application for a 401 Certification for the reservoir project.

Soon after receiving the Cleveland County  application on May 2, DENR’s water quality  staff  concluded that the application was incomplete; among other things, the application  did not identify mitigation  for stream and wetland impacts.  The state also has an  environmental  law  similar to NEPA.   The state Environmental Policy Act (SEPA)  requires an  EIS before  a state agency approves a project involving: 1. expenditure of public money or use of public land; and 2. the potential for significant impacts on the environment.  See N.C.G.S. 113A-4.  Although the Cleveland County reservoir project met all of the SEPA triggers,  the county did not submit an EIS with the permit application –another reason to find the application incomplete.  (Usually,  the state and federal reviews  are  coordinated so a single  EIS can be used for both. )

Although water quality staff  decided that the Cleveland County application was incomplete,  DENR  did not notify  Cleveland County of deficiencies in the application. On the other hand, DENR    did not  acknowledge the application as complete and  publish  notice of the application as required under federal law. After the  early  exchange  of emails among DENR staff about the incomplete application,  radio silence (at least in terms of email communication) for several weeks. Then, on  July 2, 2013 the new  director of DENR’s reorganized water programs, Tom Reeder,  sent a letter  to Cleveland County  waiving the requirement for a 401 Certification on the reservoir project. The letter gave one reason: under state rules, DENR  must act on an application for a  401 Certification within 60 days or the certification is waived. (See 15A NCAC 02H.0507.

You can find  DENR documents on the Cleveland County reservoir project, including the waiver letter,   here. (Be prepared to try  the link more than once; the connection sometimes sends an error message.)

Several things about DENR’s decision on the Cleveland County 401 Certification:

—  DENR has always interpreted the  60-day time period in state rules as  starting when DENR receives a complete application for the 401 Certification and in this case it seems clear that the Cleveland County application was not complete.

— The Clean Water Act  only assumes the 401 Certification has been waived if the state fails to act within  one year after receiving a 401 application.

— Starting the review time based on an incomplete application is inconsistent with DENR’s past interpretation of the rule and inconsistent with DENR’s  application of the rule to other projects currently under review.

— Given the inconsistency with past interpretation, current practice  and the absence of any effort to put the Cleveland County application through a normal 401 Certification review,  DENR seems to have made a deliberate decision to waive the state’s 401 authority for this particular project. The waiver did not happen by operation of  either state or federal law.

—  A deliberate waiver of a 401 Certification appears to have  no precedent in the N.C. water quality program and means the state has  forfeited the opportunity to influence permit conditions and  mitigation requirements for the Cleveland County reservoir project to protect water quality.

—  Other applicants will  question the  criteria for  a state waiver of the 401 Certification.  (The City of Raleigh, which has also proposed a controversial reservoir project, has already asked for a copy of the Cleveland County waiver letter.) Unfortunately, the waiver letter raises more questions than it answers, since it cites the 60-day rule to waive the 401 Certification for an incomplete application.

On August 21, 2013, Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) sent a letter asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency  to designate the  area  of the First Broad River in Cleveland County proposed for reservoir construction as unsuitable under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act. Since then, SELC has filed an appeal of the state’s waiver of the 401 Certification on behalf of American Rivers.