April 02– Apr. 2–Tom Robertson sees both technical and political obstacles to finding a workable solution to creating a fish passage in the Savannah River at New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam.
Speaking Monday to the Kiwanis Club of Augusta, Robertson of Cranston Engineering Group said there is a long and tangled history to finding a way to get migratory fish past the lock and dam, which opened in 1937. The lock was used dozens of times a year until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers closed it in 2014 and “60 to 80 percent of migratory fish were able to get through,” he said, “a process that basically costs no money.”
Robertson has been hired by Augusta to help it and North Augusta craft a joint response to the Corps to make the case for an alternative to the agency’s preferred plan.
The Savannah Harbor Expansion Project to deepen that port from 42 feet to 45 feet is important, Robertson said, but will result in the loss of some endangered shortnose and Atlantic sturgeon, so the Corps needed a mitigation plan for those migratory fish. The solution was giving them access to the Augusta Shoals, which the Corps believes they have been blocked from accessing since the lock and dam opened. Additionally, there would be minimal repair to the lock and dam and to open a very wide fish passage across the South Carolina side, which Robertson said would cost around $50 million.
The Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act in 2016 changed all of that, he said. That act was “amended on the morning of the day it passed in that afternoon to do some things with the lock and dam without any notice to people in Georgia, South Carolina or (Augusta) localities,” Robertson claimed.
It deauthorized the lock and dam and left the Corps with essentially two options: repair the lock wall and modify the structure “to maintain the pool for navigation, water supply, and recreational activities as existed on the date of enactment (of the act) and to allow safe passage over the structure to historic spawning grounds” in the Augusta Shoals. Or, “construction at an appropriate location across the Savannah River of a structure that is able to maintain the pool for water supply and recreational activities, as in existence on the date of enactment of this act,” and then removal of the lock and dam.
Augusta, North Augusta and Aiken and Columbia counties are strongly in favor of one of the options the Corps studied, which is to repair the dam and put in a fish passage on the Georgia side where the lock essentially was, Robertson said. The Corps instead wants to build a 500-foot rock weir that runs the length of the river channel at a height that would maintain a lower pool at the lock and dam that is three feet lower than average now.
The Corps studied the weir at different heights, and that is the highest it can be without causing nuisance flooding. The Corps eliminated the repair and Georgia fish passage option as a “lower probability” to pass fish than the Corps’ preference. New cost estimates ballooned to $380 million over the 100-year life cycle of the project, more than double its previous estimate and more than three times the project cost for the preferred alternative at $105 million, according to a recent blog post from the Corps.
Robertson finds those numbers difficult to swallow.
“We don’t know really what to believe,” he said.
What happened is the Corps has to consider the costs for a project over the entire lifespan, which in this case is 100 years, and “includes escalation that accounts for inflation and increased wage growth over time for maintenance across 100 years” but expressed in today’s dollars for comparison, said Russell Wicke, the spokesman for the Corps’ Savannah District.
Last week, the Corps noted it had considered a weir at a higher height that would hold the pool about a little less than two feet below the current level, but that would also result in occasional flooding for some farmland and forest upstream. It would be up to local officials to obtain any lands, easements, rights of way or relocations if necessary to mitigate that impact if that option were pursued, the Corps noted in that post.
The Corps’ response notes a basic problem with using a fixed structure to try to accomplish both fish passage and flood control, Robertson said.
“You solve one and create the other,” he said.
The Corps’ preferred option would include extensive excavation 275 feet into nearby Lock and Dam Park that “basically takes out the park,” Robertson said. Because it would sit only about a foot higher than the weir, it would probably flood frequently and “may be a muddy mess,” he said.
Both U.S. Rep. Rick Allen, R-Ga., and U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., and South Carolina lawmakers and officials are fighting to prevent the Corps from implementing that option and lowering the pool. The problem is Georgia U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue, Robertson said. He suspected them of making the last-minute change that put the lock and dam in this position.
While they have told people they are willing to consider changes, they want agreement from everyone, which includes the Georgia Ports Authority and Savannah area lawmakers, who are unlikely to agree to the changes the Augusta and South Carolina constituencies want, Robertson said.
Isakson spokeswoman Marie Gordon responded to Robertson’s comments, saying Isakson had monitored the plans for the lock and dam for many years, including before the 2016 water infrastructure act was passed.
“That legislation, which was developed with input from a number of community stakeholders, requires the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to maintain the pool of the Savannah River in Augusta as the Corps works to address the environmental impact of the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project,” she said. “Sen. Isakson is continuing to work with all stakeholders involved to reach a solution. He encourages the community to share its thoughts with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during the public comment period through April 16.”
A representative for Perdue did not respond to a request for comment.
Robertson urged people to comment and contact Congress about their concerns.
“I think we have a political problem there that is hard to get around,” he said.