Utility company must balance often-conflicting interests
By Willard Bowers
It's been a hot summer in Alabama. We've been in a drought. It hasn't been ideal for people who love to spend summer on some of Alabama Power's lakes. Water levels have been well below normal on Lake Harris, Lake Martin, Weiss Lake, Lake Neely Henry, Logan Martin Lake and Smith Lake. Of course, conditions on Smith Lake are of special interest to your readers.
On Oct. 2 the level on Smith was 493.7 feet. That's about three feet below the typical level for this time of year. Through most of the summer, the lake was about four feet below its average level. In some places around the lake, low water has made it difficult for people to use their boats. Certainly, it has affected many people's ability to fully enjoy their time on the lake.
The drought conditions that led to little or no inflows to our lakes have affected Alabama Power and its customers, too. Smith Lake was constructed in the early 1960s, primarily to store water for hydroelectric generation. This year, beginning in June, we cut back our hydrogeneration to the minimum needed to meet our downstream obligations. As a result, we've generated much less power from Smith Dam (and from all our hydro facilities) than we normally do. On the other hand, by cutting back we were able to keep the level of Smith Lake about 2½ feet higher than it would have otherwise been.
The fact that Smith Lake levels are low is not that rare an occurrence. During the 2000 drought, Smith Lake was lower than it is today. It was also low in 1993.
Beyond its primary function as a storage reservoir, there are other reasons why Smith Lake goes up and down. For one, Smith is a headwaters reservoir. Unlike Weiss Lake or Lake Harris, there's no river entering Smith Lake. Rather, Smith Lake relies on runoff from small creeks and tributaries. The area above Smith Lake that provides that runoff is only 944 square miles, compared with 1,453 square miles above Lake Harris and 5,273 square miles above Weiss Lake.
Normally, Smith Lake reaches full summer pool in mid-April and stays near, or above, full through the first part of June. From that point on, the level drops as spring rains recede and power is generated from the dam to meet high summer demand for electricity. That's the pattern at all of our storage reservoirs. By Labor Day, all our storage lakes tend to be significantly down from full summer pool.
As mentioned, when the weather is dry, we reduce hydrogeneration to conserve water and keep lake levels up. But we can cut back only so much without adversely affecting water quality downstream, or impacting downstream users. At Smith Dam there is also consideration of commercial river traffic on the Black Warrior River, and maintaining drinking water sources for Jasper and Birmingham.
Some Smith Lake residents have raised questions about Plant Gorgas, our coal-fired generating plant on the Black Warrior. During the summer, flows from Smith Dam do help keep the river at the right temperature near the plant to protect water quality and fish habitat. A few have suggested that building cooling towers at Gorgas could help keep the lake full. But the construction costs for cooling towers — preliminary estimates put the price between $85 million and $190 million — are sizable, and we don't believe the investment is in line with our obligations to provide reliable, low-cost power to our customers while using the resources at Smith Lake for all their intended purposes.
As you can see, as owner of Smith Lake, and as a regulated utility, we have an often-complicated balancing act that we must maintain. We try hard to meet the needs of all our stakeholders. They include government agencies, lake residents and downstream users, homeowner and boat-owner groups, recreation lovers, developers and business interests, and environmental advocates. They also include our company's shareholders, and — very important — the interests of our 1.4 million customers who want safe, reliable, affordable electricity. Sometimes, the interests of these various individuals and organizations diverge. Sometimes they're in direct conflict with each other. And when the weather doesn't cooperate, it can be even more difficult.
Whatever the case, we want to hear your concerns, and we want to work with you. We may not always be able to reach an agreement that satisfies all parties. In fact, it's almost impossible to satisfy everyone. But we're going to try.
For more information about Alabama Power lakes and our environmental commitment, go to www.ala
Willard Bowers is vice president for environmental affairs for Alabama Power Co.