Local delegation promotes repairing Lock and Dam, legislators pledge support

The Augusta Chronicle

July 09–Augusta and North Augusta spoke with one voice in Washington, D.C., last week about fixing the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam.

They asked congressmen and senators from both states for help, and they’re going to get it, U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia said.

The local leaders want the Lock and Dam to be rehabilitated and a small fish passage constructed to let endangered species swim around it. To make it happen, U.S. Rep. Rick Allen of Augusta agreed to take the lead in drafting legislative language that would authorize money for repairs.

“I am in constant contact with all stakeholders involved in the ongoing discussions about the future of the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam,” Allen said in a statement. “My staff and I are diligently working through the legislative process to make sure the solution best suits the needs of the Augusta area.”

Isakson said he’ll shepherd the effort on the Senate side, and the community’s support for a single solution will make it more likely to happen.

“As long long as the community stays together, it’s possible and its chances get better as time goes on,” he said. “I’m taking my instructions from Congressman Allen and I’ll do whatever I can to help.”

Mayors Hardie Davis and Bob Pettit and engineer Tom Robertson, among others, met with Isakson, Sens. David Perdue and Lindsey Graham, and Reps. Allen and Joe Wilson or their staffers.

All the stakeholders spoke against tearing down the Lock and Dam and building a rock weir in place of it, Pettit said. The Water Infrastructure Im­prove­ments for the Nation Act, passed late last year, authorizes a rock weir and fish passage, while deauthorizing the Lock and Dam.

But the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project will cause salt water to intrude into coastal freshwater spawning grounds for the endangered shortnose sturgeon and other fish. The Lock and Dam proposals are meant to be mitigation for that habitat loss.

Work to deepen the inner harbor in Savannah can’t start until the mitigation issue is resolved, Robertson said.

At last week’s meeting with legislators, “We said: ‘This is what we need technically. Can y’all get it done?’ And they said they would,” Robertson said.

Fixing the Lock and Dam is the cheapest option, Robertson said, based on estimates from the Corps of Engineers. The rehab would add $20 million to the $30 million already targeted for the fish passage, for a total of $50 million.

The rock weir would cost $56 million if built upstream from the Lock and Dam’s location, or $100 million if built over it.

For locals, it’s all about “maintaining the pool,” from which both cities and nearby industries draw water, Robertson said. A working Lock and Dam has gates that can be opened and closed. A rock weir can’t be manipulated.

And that causes worries about flooding. While the Corps controls releases into the river from the Thurmond Lake Dam, it can’t control runoff from streams such as Stevens Creek. While the Corps maintains that the Lock and Dam isn’t a flood-control device, it is a flood mitigation device, Pettit pointed out. His city doesn’t have a levee protecting its riverfront development, including the new Riverside Village at Hammond’s Ferry.

He and Robertson said the Corps would like to get rid of the Lock and Dam and replace it with a no-maintenance weir, but they are counting on the “common sense” approach of the local solution — along with the need to move quickly on the larger Savannah project — to prevail.

“It’s the quickest, the cheapest and the best,” Robertson said.

Reach James Folker at (706) 823-3338

or james.folker@augustachronicle.com.

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.