Dam calm.JPG

Small amounts of water flow down the Cowans Ford Dam a week after three floodgates were opened after heavy rain upstream.

On June 18, Duke Energy sent a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Agency explaining its procedures and decision-making when heavier-than-expected rain strained its water-management system earlier this month.

The 20-page document includes much of what we reported in our June 21 issue, but with more detail and supporting data. The unfortunate flooding in the Mountain Island area, after Duke took the unprecedented step of fully opening two floodgates and partially lifting another at the Cowans Ford Dam on Lake Norman, has been the subject of continued news coverage, much of it based on man-on-the-street perspectives on what the company should and shouldn’t have done.

What’s troubling about that reporting – and a reflection of the state of journalism generally – is that those anecdotes, from folks who don’t manage a system of 11 lakes and multiple hydroelectric plants for a living, often go unchallenged and unchecked.

For example, a resident of Riverside Drive (site of some of the worst flooding) “said people can typically hear sirens meant to warn them when Duke opens the dam to release water,” the Charlotte Observer reported June 25. “This time, (the resident) said, there were no sirens.”

We checked with Duke, and a spokeswoman said the only sirens on the dam are designed to sound if the dam completely fails (which came nowhere close to happening). Duke does blow horns when the dam’s energy-producing turbines engage, but that is to alert boaters and those fishing immediately downstream of the coming current, not people living miles away.

Some critics, including Mecklenburg County Commissioner Pat Cotham, have publicly suggested that Duke mismanaged the water flow and could have prevented the flooding of more than 100 homes. Finding blame when something bad happens is human nature. It’s a way for us to direct our anger or anguish at someone and get it out of our system.

But being the victim of flooding – or serving as an elected representative for those who are – does not a hydro-engineer make.

Asking questions about Duke’s decision-making is absolutely appropriate. Letting emotion drive our conclusions is not.

Culpability deserves consequences, but let’s let the experts sort out how much, if any, there is.


– John Deem is editor of Lake Norman Publications (The Herald Citizen, Mooresville Citizen, Denver Citizen and Mountain Island Monitor)

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