May 10–Augusta community leaders were urged May 2 to get behind a “better solution” than what was authorized in a recent federal law for preserving the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam and the pool of water in the Savannah River that Augusta relies on.
An overflow crowd of more than 200 came to The Boathouse for the Save the Middle Savannah River meeting, including Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis, Augusta Commissioners Mary Davis and Ben Hasan, Georgia State Transportation Board member Don Grantham and former North Augusta Mayor Lark Jones.
Years after federal legislation authorized repairing the lock and dam, but provided no funding, and with the need to make up for the loss of spawning ground caused by the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project, plans were sketched out for a $50 million project. The project would spend $20 million on repairing the Lock and Dam, which maintains the pool of water upstream, and $30 million on a “modest” fish passage that would allow spawning sturgeon and other fish to swim around it and access spawning grounds upstream, said engineer Tom Robertson.
“It was a shovel-ready project,” that included studies on its environmental impact, he said. Instead, late last year, Congress passed the Water Infrastructure Improvement for the Nation Act, which deauthorized the Lock and Dam, and provided for a rock weir — a rock dam with channels for fish to pass through — that also preserves the pool.
Savannah Riverkeeper Tonya Bonitatibus said that is important because it is the first time the pool has been federally protected and also transfers the Lock and Dam park to the City of Augusta, which would benefit south Augusta. But Robertson said the legislation was passed “over the objecting voices of hundreds of area stakeholders.” He pointed out that a similar rock weir plan considered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would have cost $100 million by the Corps’ own estimate. There would be a loss of flood control that the gates there now provide and one plan he saw showed the pool elevation would be lowered three feet, which could have potential impacts.
The lock and dam was never really designed for flood control and doesn’t have an impact when the flow of water is above a certain rate anyway, said Russell Wicke, spokesman for the Corps’ Savannah District. The cost estimate was from 2011 and the Corps has a much more refined process for calculating the cost — which has not yet been done — and will seek to provide the most cost-effective way of carrying out what is required by the legislation, he said. Engineers will be looking at pool elevation as part of the design for that, but it will be done in a way to have the least impact on flooding and preserving the pool, Wicke said.
Robertson said any solution “should be based on some sound technical knowledge,” which he said the previous plan had, and urged people at the meeting to provide comments to the Corps before June 3, when the comment period will end.
“We need to tell the Corps we want a better solution,” Robertson said. That is what the comment period is all about, Wicke said, noting that it was extended from the normal 30 days to more than 60 days to encourage participation.
“We’re glad they’re doing that because we want to make an informed decision,” he said.
Robertson and concerned landowner Leroy Simkins Jr. also urged those in attendance to get involved with the effort and also to contact their congressional representatives about putting a better solution into place.
“Get off a message to the Corps,” Simkins said. “And get off a message to your representative.”