Augusta commissioners hear opinions about what to do with lock and dam

The Augusta Chronicle

Feb. 21–While they are often on opposite sides of what to do to the crumbling New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam, an Augusta engineer and the Savannah Riverkeeper agree that the lock part should be saved and that Augusta needs to act to make sure it is.

Augusta engineer Tom Robertson and Riverkeeper Tonya Bonitatibus, as well as a representative of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, testified Wednesday during a work session of the Augusta Commission on what to do with the aging structure, which was built in 1937. It was used to make the river navigable and currently maintains the pool of water that Augusta, North Augusta and various industries depend on for water as well as hosting events such as the swim portion of the Ironman 70.3 Augusta.

The Corps placed it in “caretaker status” in 1985 and later determined it was no longer needed for commercial navigation, said Tom Wiedmeier, director of Augusta Utilities. Congress passed legislation in 2000 to repair the Lock and Dam but it was never funded.

Despite some local efforts to again get funding for repairs, the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act passed in late 2016 de-authorized the Lock and Dam and it now just exists as part of the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project. Because that project is causing the loss of spawning grounds for endangered sturgeon around the harbor area, the Corps has been considering plans that would allow the fish access to spawning grounds beyond the Lock and Dam to mitigate the impact on those and other fish.

Originally, that plan was to build a fish passage around the structure, said Laurie Sattler, a project manager with the Savannah District of the Corps who has been studying that since it was proposed in 2012. The new federal legislation requires the Corps to repair the lock wall and build a structure that would maintain the pool “as in existence on the date of enactment” for “navigation, water supply and recreational activities” but must also allow the fish “safe passage over the structure.”

The Corps is studying two alternatives, one that would be built over the existing structure or one that would be built just upstream and the structure removed. A draft of its recommendation is expected to be released by late summer, but the agency will discuss the alternatives with city leaders before that, Sattler said.

That’s where the dispute begins. Robertson and a concerned group of local residents called Save the Middle River are trying to get Congress to change the legislation, though nothing has been filed yet. He said there should be a common sense solution that preserves the pool and maintains navigation but would also address issues such as flood control and the potential for silt and debris to build up behind a rock dam that might replace the Lock and Dam.

“It’s sort of interesting that (the legislation) makes the Savannah River navigable in Savannah and non-navigable in Augusta,” Robertson said. “What ended up in the law is not to the benefit of our community.”

He believes the issue of where the fish spawn could be addressed in a different way, including finding out where that is happening now.

“They are spawning somewhere,” he said. And “there’s some question about whether the sturgeon will even go up the fish passage” if one is built over the dam, Robertson said.

But Bonitatibus said a similar structure built over a lock and dam system on the Cape Fear River in North Carolina has worked after some adjustments and sturgeon eggs have been found on the upstream side of it. And the legislation provides protection for Augusta’s pool.

“The water supply is protected for the first time,” she said. The legislation provides $36 million from the Savannah Harbor project to create a solution on the Augusta end and if it went away “you still will not have money to fix the Lock and Dam,” Bonitatibus said. Worse would be returning to the idea of an expanded fish passage around the current structure that she said would create a “dead pool” of water at the Lock and Dam, which would be a “nasty cesspool.”

But both sides agreed that saving the lock would be good. Bonitatibus is in favor of using it to help create a whitewater park, where big plastic blocks can be manipulated to vary the river flow or rapids created. She is asking the commission for $10,000 to bring in the McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group, which built a whitewater center in Tennessee for the 1996 Olympics and built one in downtown Columbus, Ga., to do a study on what it would take to convert the lock area for that purpose. But it is going to take broad support, she said.

“If this city does not speak with one voice to protect those locks, they’re gone,” Bonitatibus said.

Mayor Pro Tem Mary Davis, who chaired the workshop, said it was helpful to have everyone in the room.

“This is the first time we’ve heard all of this information at one time,” she said.

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213

or tom.corwin@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.