EDITORIAL: Right for the river

The Augusta Chronicle

May 14–Why can’t the government — just once — listen to the people?

More than 200 people gathered at Augusta’s Boathouse Community Center on May 2 to be heard. They’re upset about the proposed removal of the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam, and they’re demanding to be heard.

The Lock and Dam helps control the pooling of the Savannah River as it runs through Augusta. And, built in 1937, it’s showing its age. It’s in desperate need of repair. Many — including this newspaper — would call the need critical.

Congress thought so, too. Several years ago, local industries and governments formed a consortium to maintain the Lock and Dam, and in 2000 Congress passed a law authorizing its restoration before transferring it to local jurisdictions.

The stakeholders included the cities of Augusta and North Augusta, Aiken County, DSM, Kimberly-Clark, Gene­ral Chemical, Potash Corp. and South Carolina Electric Co.

But the funding never materialized, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers never made the repairs.

Now there are new plans envisioned for the dam. The Corps is considering removing it entirely and replace it with a rock weir. An intention of the weir is to ease migratory passage for endangered fish species, notably the shortnose sturgeon.

That intention isn’t the problem. It’s the method. A rock weir is a different type of waterway barrier, but not necessarily better for Augusta.

Once built, a weir can’t be manipulated regularly like the floodgates of the Lock and Dam. And if it can’t be manipulated, it can’t reliably maintain the deep 10-mile-long river pool Augusta enjoys, or minimize flood levels during storms.

With a rock weir, if there were a flood event, the water would have to go somewhere. That somewhere is over the top, raising water levels upstream.

Compare that with a flood event in January 2016, when the Lock and Dam’s gates were prudently opened to allow water to flow freely.

The CSRA relies heavily on the river — for commerce, recreation, navigation and our precious water supply. Think of all the enterprises that are dependent on a thriving Savannah River and its reliable pool level. There are boat races, rowing regattas and Ironman triathlon events — all with significant economic impact.

Across the river, Project Jackson is taking shape to be a riverside showpiece. A new ballpark for the Augusta GreenJackets baseball team is the centerpiece for a development comprised of retail space, apartments, a hotel/conference center and more. The developers didn’t choose to place all this several miles inland. They chose our popular river for a reason.

That’s the river that needs to be preserved.

The May 2 Boathouse meeting included a presentation with a sane, relatively inexpensive option for the Corps to consider, which could meet the needs of stakeholders on all sides of the Lock and Dam debate.

It consists of two parts: Repair the Lock and Dam — which Congress called to be done 17 years ago — and build a moderate fish passage.

Also called a fish ladder, the passage is a structure built around river barriers, such as dams, that allow fish to migrate.

It creates pools where fish alternately swim and rest as they work their way upstream. This would cost far less than a rock weir — and that’s according to the Corps’ own numbers.

Could that work for the Savannah River? Ask folks in Maine, for example. The Penobscot River Restoration Trust purchased the Howland Dam in 2010, and a fish passage was installed. It opened up 1,000 miles of habitat for 11 species of fish. There are dozens more examples across the country where fish ladders and dams work superbly.

When considering the most expeditious and cost-effective means of making a decision for the purpose of keeping the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project on schedule, repairing the Lock and Dam with a bypass is really the only viable alternative.

It’s already environmentally vetted. It would be relatively quick to implement. When you look at available options, the one-two punch of repairing the Lock and Dam and constructing a fish passage seems to make the most sense in charting a successful future for the Savannah River and the people who love it.

Those people filled the Boathouse recently, and they want to be heard.

If you want to be heard, the Corps is accepting written comments concerning the Lock and Dam. Until noon June 3, you can email CESAS-PD@usace.army.mil to tell the Corps that the river and its stakeholders deserve a practical, cost-effective solution to the Lock and Dam issue.

And by all means, copy that email to U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue of Georgia; U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott of South Carolina; and our U.S. representatives on both sides of the river, Georgia’s Rick Allen and South Carolina’s Joe Wilson.

All options need to be explored. Our jewel of a river deserves that much.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Waterways Council, Inc.