State sues over ownership of Yadkin River
Posted August 2, 2013
Raleigh, N.C. — The state Department of Administration filed a lawsuit Friday over the title to the riverbed of the Yadkin River.
Alcoa, which has operated hydroelectric dams on the river for decades, has laid claim to the riverbed, and state officials say they want the courts to settle the matter.
"The Yadkin River is a North Carolina River," Gov. Pat McCrory said in a statement. "We should be able to use it for North Carolina water needs and to create North Carolina jobs. The benefits of the Yadkin River belong to North Carolina's people."
The lawsuit is the latest salvo in an ongoing dispute over Alcoa's dams, which used to power a now-closed aluminum smelter in Stanly County. The company has sold the electricity produced by the dams in recent years.
North Carolina officials have battled Alcoa's efforts to obtain a new federal license for the dams.
Because of the pending lawsuit, the state Division of Water Resources has denied Alcoa's water-quality certification application for the dams.
Pittsburgh-based Alcoa plans to ask that the case be moved to federal court.
"We believe this filing is flat-out wrong. Ownership of submerged lands is a question of federal law," Alcoa relicensing manager E. Ray Barham said in a statement. "(Alcoa) is confident in its ownership position and that it will be firmly established in court."
The company noted that the U.S. Supreme Court last year issued a ruling on riverbed property rights.
Ownership of riverbeds beneath commercially navigable waterways has historically gone to state governments upon statehood. Non-navigable riverbed ownership stays with the federal government.
The Supreme Court sided in 2012 with a power company in a dispute with Montana over who owns the riverbeds beneath 10 dams sitting on three Montana rivers. Montana sought to collect more than $50 million in back rent and interest after that state's highest court determined the state owns the submerged land beneath the dams.
The Supreme Court ruled that entire rivers can't be declared navigable – and thus state property – and courts should instead analyze whether the spots where dams were built were navigable before deciding state ownership.
The General Assembly's internal watchdog said in January that the Department of Administration "has a statutory duty to prepare and keep current an inventory of all state-owned lands," including riverbeds, but hasn't done so consistently.
Yadkin Riverkeeper, a nonprofit environmental group, has advocated for the public trust ownership of the river, and Dean Naujoks of the group applauded the state for filing the lawsuit.
"The state has a legal obligation to find out who owns this important resource," Naujoks said in a statement. "Alcoa had numerous opportunities to provide the proper deeds of ownership and put this whole issue to rest more than a year ago."