It's a doomsday scenario for the Marion-Moultrie lakes: Santee Cooper is sold and the buyer doesn't want the expense of re-licensing and running the utility's mammoth hydroelectric project.
So the federal license is turned in and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) orders the dams torn down and the lakes drained — all to insure the survival of the Atlantic sturgeon, a mysterious, prehistoric fish few people have ever seen but that needs to go upstream, past the dams to spawn.
The $180 million cost of providing new waterway passages for the endangered sturgeon — required to win a new federal license — could lead to the eventual draining of the lakes or a takeover of the operation with taxpayer dollars.
That's what Santee Cooper senior vice president Pam Williams recently told a state legislative panel looking at the utility's potential sale.
A taxpayer takeover might well happen. But draining the 281-square-mile expanse of the Marion-Moultrie lakes won't.
If the license were surrendered, FERC could require the three dams holding the lake — Pinopolis, Santee and St. Stephen — to be torn down, returning the Santee River basin to a more natural flowing state. But that would disrupt thousands of lives, properties and businesses.
Just one example here is the Pinopolis dam and its adjacent lock, a sort of water elevator designed to allow boats to move up and down on a rise of 75 feet between the Cooper River and Lake Moultrie.
The dam and lock also must release enough freshwater flow to keep the Charleston shipping channel from silting in the river downstream, but not so much that flow silts in the channel where the river empties. The $53 billion per year economic impact of commercial shipping from the State Ports Authority depends on it.
In other words, there's billions, not millions, at stake here.
Why it matters
The Atlantic sturgeon has been a big part of the hold-up in the federal re-licensing of lakes Moultrie and Marion for most of the 12 years a new license has been under consideration.
Making sure the sturgeon can get past the Pinopolis, Santee or St. Stephen dams has been required for the re-licensing and cost estimates have run into the millions.
Santee Cooper is fighting that expense.
Fish passages aren't a one-size-fits-all. They can be as simple as an eel ladder, like a wetted down sliding board that eel crawl up to get over the dam. Or they can be as heavy duty and costly as a lift that fills and spills water at different levels like the Pinopolis lock.
Maybe the best known are salmon passages, that work like a staircase of pools the salmon "step up" in leaps to clear the dam.
A fish lift already operates at the St. Stephen dam between Lake Moultrie and the lower Santee River. But the sturgeon don't use it. They live and feed on the river bottom and won't leave the bottom to pass through the gate to the entrance channel.
A passage must be designed to get them off the bottom somehow.
Literally a living fossil, the sturgeon is a weird-looking creature, with a sharp-finned tail and bone-like plates on its skin like a cross between a shark and an alligator. It is one of the oldest species of fish surviving today and the largest fish on the East Coast that swims between fresh and salt water.
The fish has no teeth and doesn't bite bait, so it's rarely seen and even more rarely caught. It roots along like a feral hog, nosing a snout that has whiskery barbels like a catfish, eating marine worms.
The sturgeon was once plentiful enough to be a cash crop for the Jamestown colony in Virginia. They were so abundant in the Hudson River in New York they were termed "Albany beef" at the turn of the 20th century when 3,000 tons per year were being netted along the East Coast. The roe, or eggs, was valued worldwide.
Consequentially, it was over-harvested. By the time fishing for the Atlantic sturgeon was completely stopped in 1998, the catch had dropped to 1 ton per year, even though the roe sold as caviar for $250 per pound.
On the South Carolina coast today, particularly in the ACE Basin, the fish is thought to be holding its own based on netting surveys.
Nobody really knows how important moving far upstream to spawn is to keeping the sturgeon around. The strange creatures keep so much to themselves that most people don't even know they are around until they are startled by the fishes' occasional, mysterious launches straight out of the water.
But for the fish to get far out of tidal waters upstream in the Cooper and Santee rivers, they have to get past the dams. Evidence suggests they don't.
Right now, the only place the sturgeon is known to be able up to get into or out of the Marion-Moultrie lakes is the Pinopolis lock, which fills or spills waters to move boats between the lake level and river level. FERC wants Santee Cooper to do better than that.
The S.C. Department of Natural Resources has tagged more than 200 sturgeon — both Atlantic and the related shortnose — and placed more than 300 signal receivers from the mouths of rivers to hundreds of miles upstream. The receivers have picked up more than 45 million pings in the past seven years.
In and above the lakes, nearly all the pinging sturgeon are considered to be "semi-dam locked," according to DNR researcher Bill Post. Only one was recorded getting past the dams. It went through the Pinopolis lock.
"If Atlantic sturgeon are returning to their natal river to spawn, it is important to be able to get to suitable habitat, reproduce, and be able to leave the river," Post said, emphasizing the word "if."
Giving up a hydroelectric license isn't a simple thing.
Even though the three electric generation stations the Marion-Moultrie lakes feed are a tiny percentage of the power Santee Cooper produces, you can't just turn the license in and walk away.
FERC decides whether it can be surrendered, in a process one of its spokespeople described as complex, involving state as well as federal approvals.
The party surrendering the license would be required to return the riverland to its natural state and to fill any number of other obligations mandated by FERC, said FERC spokeswoman Celeste Miller.
Miller said she could not directly answer whether recompensing property holders or economic interests might be an obligation required of the party surrendering the license. But she said the license holder would be responsible for mitigating "environmental effects that are expected to occur upon surrender."
Across the 281 square miles of the Marion-Moultrie lakes, that could mean somehow making up for billions of dollars of lost value in lakefront properties, lake recreation and lake tourism, as well as installing some sort of flow control to keep the Charleston shipping channel clear.
One way or another, utility customers would have to absorb the rate hikes to do it all — customers who now are angry about paying the costs of the failed V.C. Summer Nuclear Station.
That mess led to the impending sale of SCE&G and Santee Cooper, its project partner.
Maintaining the lakes costs $11 million per year, Santee Cooper executive Williams told the legislative panel. But the utility's revenue was $1.7 billion in 2017, according to its annual report.
"We're talking millions of dollars (to provide for the sturgeon)," said Gerrit Jobsis, of American Rivers, which has pushed federal authorities to require passage for the fish as part of the relicensing. But compared to overall costs and revenue, much less tearing down the lakes, "the cost is not extraordinary," he said.
Besides, providing for the sturgeon might not cost as much as $180 million.
In 2008, Santee Cooper protested the original federal National Marine Fisheries Service call for $137 million worth of fish passages to be built, saying it was unnecessarily costly. NMFS went back to work on its recommendations. A new "biological opinion" is expected to be released within a few months.
The ensuing FERC requirements could include a rework of the recommended fish passages. But they could end up being as relatively straightforward as netting a number of the fish each spawning season and trucking them past the dams, said Bob Hoffman, a NMFS branch chief.
Or the biological opinion might put off dealing with the sturgeon even longer.
"Research has shown some fish above the dams come back less healthy," Hoffman said. "What's needed is more research."
Santee Cooper has continued to operate the lakes on a year-to-year extension of its current license, something not so unusual in the FERC world. The standard eight-year re-licensing process often gets extended double that time or more, according to industry analysts.
Those extensions, designed to give industries more time to meet FERC requirements, perversely also give them more time to fight or delay implementing them, Jobsis said.
"There's no incentive to re-license the system if you're worried about the cost," he said.