March 14–An Augusta engineer said plans to replace the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam with a rock weir could affect the pool of water in the Savannah River around Augusta that the cities and industry rely on.
Tom Robertson, a consulting engineer in Augusta, spoke Monday to the Kiwanis Club of Augusta, where he is a member. Robertson has been studying plans to deal with the aging lock and dam, which was part of creating a navigable waterway for Augusta when it opened in 1937.
At one point in 2001, legislation was passed to repair the lock and dam and create a fish ladder around it for migrating fish like the endangered shortnose sturgeon, but that plan was never funded, Robertson said. Another plan would have created a rock ramp over the lock and dam but that plan was apparently abandoned because the cost was estimated at $100 million, Robertson said.
A fish passage is needed as mitigation for the $706 million Savannah Harbor Expansion Project, whose deepening will impact spawning grounds for the sturgeon. But in September, a plan to replace the lock and dam with a rock weir, a rock dam with a series of channels for fish passage, was inserted into federal legislation and “the stakeholders in Augusta had no input into that process whatsoever,” Robertson said.
The legislation, called The Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, passed in Congress over the objections of a group of affected landowners, who feared the loss of the lock and dam will not only affect the ability to keep the pool of water stable but also lose the ability to control flooding. Despite assurances the weir would keep the Augusta pool at its current 115 feet above sea level, Roberts said he recently saw a preliminary study that looked at keeping the pool as low as 112 feet, a drop of three feet that could be significant, he said.
“This is a classic example of bait and switch,” Robertson said. “We were told one thing and it’s turned out what we’re being delivered is quite another.”
What impact that lower pool would have for the cities of Augusta and North Augusta, which draw drinking water from it, and for industries that do the same is not clear because Robertson said he does not know the elevation of those pipes “and neither does the Corps,” the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A Corps spokesman did not return a call for comment.
Additionally, Robertson said, there may not be enough pool left to host annual events like the Ironman swim, the drag boat races and rowing regattas.
And there would still be concerns about flooding, such as what happened along the river in January 2016 despite having the gates wide open, an ability that would be lost with the rock dam, Robertson said.
“If you put a pile of rocks in the river, there is no way that those can be removed in times of flood to mitigate extra water coming down,” he said. That flooding could potentially impact not only homeowners and businesses along the river but also the riverside Project Jackson and its new stadium, Robertson said.
Leroy Simkins Jr., a landowner who has been working to get other options to be considered, said it is important for people in Augusta “to all be speaking with one voice” on the issue to those in Washington. If they can reach that local consensus, “then I think our elected officials in Washington will listen,” Robertson said. “And I think they will take corrective action so that all viable options are considered, not just a few.”
Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213