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Feds, Duke at odds over river

Federal regulators are pushing Duke Energy to do more to protect the Catawba River's environment as a years-long process to renew its hydroelectric license nears an end.

Among their recommendations is that Duke buy back undeveloped portions of its 1,700 miles of shoreline and enforce a protective 50-foot-wide buffer along the waterfront.

Duke says new license terms the government has proposed would cost tens of millions of dollars and jeopardize commitments it has made for recreation and conservation across the Catawba basin.

Stakes are high for both Duke and the public. The 225-mile, 11-reservoir Catawba is one of the nation's largest hydro projects, and terms hammered out now will guide its management for decades.

Duke and 70 of the 85 parties involved in relicensing - government agencies, advocacy groups and individuals - reached agreement on license terms and additional concessions in 2006, after three years of negotiation.

The staff of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which is expected to issue a new license early next year, has endorsed most of that agreement. But in a draft environmental study released in March, the staff proposed additional license terms.

Among them were shoreline-protection measures recommended by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is charged with protecting environmental habitat. The agency has frequently criticized the level of development on Duke's Charlotte-area lakes.

"One of our concerns has long been that the balance of developed to undeveloped shoreline has been exceeded," said service biologist Mark Cantrell in Asheville.

"Acquiring remnants of land in key locations and consolidating longer expanses of shoreline would not be terribly expensive if done over time, and done in conjunction with other programs."

Duke calls the proposal unjustified and impractically expensive. Its analysis of a similar proposition, buying 100-foot-wide swaths along 800 miles of undeveloped shoreline, estimated costs at more than $2 billion.

The company cites 33 conflicts, big and small, between the federal recommendations and its 2006 licensing agreement. Among the recommendations: Create a comprehensive land-conservation plan; change the way water is released from Duke's dams for paddlers; and place some areas, such as a proposed park on Lake Norman, within the scope of Duke's hydro license.

Duke says the expense of those recommendations, if they're part of its new license, would mean that it can't fulfill some elements of the 2006 agreement. In that agreement, Duke committed nearly $10 million in recreational amenities and expanded conservation, and to help protect thousands more acres.

"We signed the agreement with the understanding that it provided us some certainty and predictability," said Mark Oakley, Duke's licensing manager. "We feel like protecting our benefits and burdens is the best way to protect everybody else."

Local governments are growing nervous that they could lose the benefits they negotiated with Duke. "The whole agreement could dissolve," said Mary George, Catawba County's assistant planning director.

George worries that the county could lose the rare, undeveloped 589 acres on Lake Norman that Duke agreed last year to sell at a bargain price.

The river town of Great Falls, S.C., could lose canoe access areas, a pedestrian bridge to an island that will become a state park and the release of whitewater down long-dry channels of the Catawba.

"We're going to be depending a lot on some of the things that were in that agreement to jump-start our economy again," said Glinda Coleman, the town's hometown association director.

FERC spokeswoman Celeste Miller said the commission will take public sentiment into account when it issues the license. The agency's recommendations in the environmental study, she said, could change or be removed.

Some relicensing participants insist Duke can do more than it has agreed to do.

South Carolina, which has sued North Carolina before the U.S. Supreme Court over its share of Catawba water, says the river is more stressed than Duke's models show.

The Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, a nonprofit watchdog, says Duke's power plants should use less cooling water and release more water downstream from its dams.