Dec. 12–Augusta officials spoke out Tuesday against the Army Corps of Engineers’ plan to remove the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam, build a fixed rock weir and excavate a floodplain at Augusta’s Lock and Dam Park.
The plan, revealed last month, is the corps’ top-ranked alternative for dealing with the decommissioned 80-year-old lock and dam while also meeting a federal requirement to ensure upstream passage of migratory fish on the Savannah River.
The alternative, estimated to cost the corps $69 million plus about $45,000 in annual maintenance expenses, would drop the pool of water the lock and dam currently helps contain on the North Augusta and downtown Augusta riverfront by 2.5 feet.
“My personal feeling is that’s really low for the Augusta pool, and I feel like it would destroy the lock and dam park,” said Augusta Utilities Director Tom Wiedmeier, who gave a presentation on the options to Augusta commissioners Tuesday.
The corps’ second option — to rebuild the dam, demolish the lock and build a fish passage on the Georgia side of the river — is estimated at about $61 million plus an annual maintenance cost of nearly $1 million, as the structure would need to be rebuilt after about 50 years, Wiedmeier said.
A third corps alternative Wiedmeier said he preferred is to remove the lock and dam and build a gated bypass channel with structures to maintain the pool. Fish would pass through a rock dam or weir constructed in the middle of the river. The corps estimates that annual maintenance of the gated bypass and weir will also cost $1 million.
The second and third options each could be modified to include the whitewater park the commission has under preliminary design, Wiedmeier said.
In January, the corps will draw down the river to demonstrate the lowered pool, and a brief comment period will follow. Wiedmeier said the city needs to present its preference before the comment period.
Mayor Hardie Davis said repairing the lock and dam remains the preference for the city and neighboring jurisdictions. He and Commissioner Sean Frantom questioned why the local government would be saddled with maintenance costs for a federal project.
“What was unequivocal was this idea around local municipalities taking on the maintenance requirements for a federal project,” Davis said. “That historically is not our posture.”
Davis said a weir is not true flood control and that area industries reling on river water would be affected by changing water levels.
“You’ve got some real concerns there — Nutria, Kimberly-Clark,” Davis said. “Starbucks is further downstream.”
Sue Parr, the president of the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber had “great concern about the concept that the corps is moving forward,” while time is limited.
The corps “will make a final recommendation in February. That will be the project and it will be under construction because it’s coupled with the inner-harbor deepening currently at the Savannah port … This is a fast-moving train,” Parr said.
Parr said the corps’ plan to use lock and dam park as a floodplain will result in a “10-foot excavated ditch mostly in your park.”
Once construction is complete, the corps “will basically wipe their hands of it — it will be off their books,” Parr said, leaving the area to cover operations and maintenance.
Parr said an earlier consortium involving North Augusta, Augusta and large stakeholders agreed that some maintenance responsibility followed the benefits of maintaining the pool.
The chamber has confirmed that funds for maintenance could be placed on a Transportation Investment Act sales-tax project list because of the project’s ties to the port, Parr said.
Savannah Riverkeeper Executive Director Tonya Bonitatibus said the weir proposal did not consider the safety of people who will climb the rocks, among safety, recreational and other criteria the corps’ plan overlooks.
“The city needs to formulate a letter that says you are missing criteria in your three. We’d like you to put them in your equation,” she said. “We’d like you to understand that we’re working on a fourth alternative which is semi-like the gated bypass channel that would pull the water into the park and could be created in to a whitewater center.”
Bonitatibus said if the area insists only on getting the lock and dam repaired, the corps will refuse and “we’ve put all our eggs in a basket that we’re not going to win with.”
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