Pee Dee River, NC | Photo: Gerrit Jobsis

The Pee Dee River provides abundant habitat for fish, mussels, birds and other wildlife. Unfortunately, the health of the river is at risk thanks to irresponsible and harmful operations of the Duke Energy Tillery Hydroelectric Project on the Pee Dee River. If the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission does not take steps to improve dam operations through the project’s license, the river’s health will suffer for decades to come.

About The River

Rising from the foothills of western North Carolina and Virginia, the Pee Dee River courses some 430 miles before entering the Winyah Bay and Atlantic Ocean near Georgetown, South Carolina. In its upper reaches where it is known as the Yadkin River, this system supplies drinking water to Winston-Salem, High Point and other Piedmont communities. Six large hydroelectric dams punctuate 60 miles of the river in central North Carolina. The river’s name changes to the Pee Dee at its confluence with the Uwharrie River just above the Duke Energy Tillery Hydroelectric Project.

Tillery Dam | Photo: City of Rockingham

The Yadkin-Pee Dee River system changes character along its path from the high gradient foothills through the rocky shoals of the Piedmont to the lower river’s miles-wide floodplain forests, lush and abundant wetlands, and numerous Carolina bays. More than 100,000 acres of federally-protected land lie adjacent to the river comprising the Uwharrie National Forest, Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge and Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge.

Migratory fish, including shad, striped bass, eel and sturgeon, ascend the river from the ocean to complete their lifecycles. The robust redhorse, a rare fish that is the largest sucker species native to East Coast rivers, was first discovered here in the 1860s. Many species of both endangered and common freshwater mussels can be found feeding on organic matter flowing across the river’s bottom. Rounding out the river’s wildlife are black bear, bald eagle and swallowtail kites which travel the river corridor and bring joy to those lucky enough to catch a fleeting glimpse.

The Threat

In April 2015, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued a 40-year operating license for the Duke Energy Tillery Hydroelectric Project on the Pee Dee River. The license fails to require flow releases from the Tillery Dam that would restore and protect 19 miles of the Pee Dee River. During license negotiations, the State of North Carolina traded essential river flows for land in a deal with Duke Energy-Progress, the license holder for the project. Despite volumes of scientific evidence and analysis that a higher flow rate is required to protect aquatic resources and recreation, FERC ignored the evidence presented by the City of Rockingham and American Rivers, and issued a license that will harm the river for decades to come. The City and American Rivers are appealing the license in federal court because its terms are not in compliance with the Federal Power Act, Endangered Species Act and other federal law.

The Tillery Reach runs from the base of Tillery Dam to the Blewett Falls Reservoir, and is the only flowing fragment of river left in the impounded stretch of the Pee Dee. The wildlife, water quality and recreational use of the Tillery Reach will suffer for the next 40 years if the license issued by FERC is allowed to stand. Currently, hydropower operations alter river flows more than 50 fold without warning and flows too low to sustain aquatic life are common. Recreational use of the Tillery Reach by families, anglers and paddlers is all but eliminated by flow fluctuations that change from drought to flood and back to drought conditions virtually every day.

During the licensing process, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service along with the City and American Rivers recommended minimum flows ranging from 800 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 1800 cfs for aquatic life and fish spawning. This reasonable flow regime recommendation was based on analysis of scientific studies by stakeholders in the licensing process and would also accommodate boating and fishing use. Under the new license, Duke Energy-Progress would release only 330 cfs (except for ten weeks in the spring when it will release 725 cfs for spawning) as its minimum, non-power-generation flow.

What Must Be Done

FERC must require minimum flow levels and reasonable hydropower operations that are protective of the Pee Dee River. In addition, FERC must halt implementation of the new Duke Energy Tillery Hydroelectric Project license and revisit the flows by granting the rehearing requested by the City of Rockingham and American Rivers. FERC has the opportunity to avoid a lengthy and expensive court case by granting the rehearing request and basing minimum flow requirements on the best information rather than harmful operations that result from a sweetheart deal between Duke Energy-Progress and the State that trades essential flows for uplands.


Want to learn more about America’s Most Endangered Rivers? Find out about the other rivers listed as for 2016 by checking out the full report.


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