Comment period on Lock and Dam plan extended

The Augusta Chronicle

Feb. 27– Feb. 27–As the city of Augusta moved to add additional resources for its opposition to a plan that will lower the pool of water in the Savannah River, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is extending the time the city has to respond.

The agency extended the comment period by 30 days to 4 p.m. April 16, the deadline to submit comment on the plan to replace New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam with a rock weir that allows fish passage.

The Augusta Commission has gone on record opposing any plan that lowers the pool of water in the river near Augusta, and the corps’ plan would drop it about two feet at the Fifth Street bridge downtown and about three feet at the lock and dam. The commission’s Engineering Services Committee voted Tuesday to hire Merrick and Co. and local firm Cranston Engineering to help the city respond and make the case for a different alternative the corps studied, which would repair the lock and dam and put in a fish passage on the Georgia side.

Without the extension, “it would have been almost impossible” to make that case, said Augusta Utilities Director Tom Wiedmeier, who is paying the firms and helping put together that response.

Richard McLaughlin of Merrick, who has drafted a concept study for the city to build a whitewater park near the lock and dam, said the city’s preferred plan “works much better for whitewater than the Corps’ recommended plan.” He has worked on about 50 similar projects in various cities, and most of his work is on preserving a river pool the city wants to keep while creating a fish passage and recreation opportunities. In recent years, McLaughlin said, the Corps has been “pretty reasonable to work with.”

Another advantage for the plan to repair and retain the lock and dam and preserve the pool is all of the various communities united behind it, said Tom Robertson of Cranston.

“That’s something that hasn’t happened in the last several years,” he said.

A recent simulation of the Corps’ recommended plan through a drawdown appeared to drop the river level even more drastically than that and prompted outrage from homeowners on both sides of the river who saw docks sitting on the ground and mud flats that extended far out from the bank.

In extending the comment period, the commander of the Corps’ Savannah District appeared to acknowledge both.

“Part of my decision to grant a 30-day extension was to accommodate requests from local and federal officials,” Col. Daniel Hibner said in a news release. “But another big part of the decision was prompted from my engagements and personal assessments with residents in their backyards in Augusta and North Augusta during the simulation exercise.”

The public can also comment during a meeting in Augusta that will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. March 6 in the Lamar Room at the Augusta Marriott at the Convention Center, 2 10th Street.

The plan seeks to mitigate damage expected from the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project, where deepening in that port will cause more saltwater to creep up the river and harm spawning grounds for endangered shortnose and Atlantic sturgeon and other migratory fish. The Corps’ plan would remove the lock and dam and conceptually allow for fish to pass over the weir to historic spawning grounds in the Augusta Shoals blocked by the current structure.

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.