Changes loom for Savannah River as Congress deauthorizes dam, lock at Augusta

By David Pendered

The Chattahoochee River isn’t the only Georgia waterway under scrutiny. Major changes are looming for the Savannah River. The dam across the river at Augusta may be removed, and whatever is built to impound water must allow fish to migrate through it.

savannah lock, dam, final

Congress has determined the New Savannah Bluff Dam and Lock no longer serves any federal purpose. The facility is to be altered so that fish can migrate through it and the dam may be removed. Credit: USACE

All this pending action along the Savannah River stems from an expansive piece of federal legislation. It was approved and signed into law during the fog that followed the 2016 presidential campaign.

On Dec. 10, 2016, Congress approved the Water Infrastructure Improvement for the

Nation (WIIN) Act. Then-President Obama signed the bill into law on Dec. 16.

The news cycle that day was filled with reports that President-elect Trump had paid $12.5 million to his own businesses during the campaign. The WIIN Act, which had ground its way through the legislative process since its introduction Feb. 27, 2015, received scant attention.

Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn introduced the bill with Sen. Ted Cruz as the sole co-signer. Both Georgia senators voted for the bill, as did Georgia’s congressmembers with the exception of two who didn’t vote – Tom Price and Lynn Westmoreland, according to the bill’s roll call voting record.

The law deauthorizes the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam. That means Congress has determined the facility no longer serves a federal need. In this case, the need identified in the 1930s was to promote commercial riverboat traffic. The upper reaches of the Savannah River last served commercial traffic in 1979 and the facility has fallen into disrepair, according to a statement by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam, map

The New Savannah Dam and Lock is located about 14 miles down river of the site where I-20 crosses above the Savannah River. Credit: Google Earth, David Pendered

The WIIN Act calls for the facility to be replaced or modified to accommodate migratory fish. The 50-acre adjacent park is to be turned over to Augusta-Richmond County for free.

Fast forward to today.

The Savannah Riverkeeper is sounding the drum over plans to retrofit the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam.

The riverkeeper supports replacing the dam with a rock weir. The group supports rehabilitating the lock system to provide for future recreational use. The group has posted an online petition and released a statement that observes:

  • “We believe replacing the aging dam structure with a rock weir not only provides safe passage for the fish, but will also provide the greatest protection for the current pool level desired by the upstream community. Rehabilitation of the lock system will open up opportunities for enhanced recreation and economic growth, such as the possibility of a whitewater center, while allowing opening of the gates to facilitate the passage of water downstream provides the crucial element of flood control.”
savannah lock

The Savannah Riverkeeper recommends that the lock be retained in order to promote future recreational use of the area around the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam. Credit: flickr.com

The WIIN Act provides a great amount of discretion in devising a solution, according to a report from the corps. The outcome is to consider stakeholders, threatened and endangered species, and U.S. taxpayers who will foot the bill.

“The bottom line is that we intend to propose a cost-effective solution that addresses and balances the needs of all stakeholders, from local public to endangered species – and taxpayers in general,” Russell Wicke, a spokesman for the corps’ Savannah district, said in a statement.

Here are some details of the WIIN Act:

  • “The  New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam are deauthorized;
  • “The structure is to be modified to, maintain the pool for navigation, water supply, and recreational activities….”
  • “The structure is to allow safe passage over the structure to historic spawning grounds of shortnose sturgeon, Atlantic sturgeon, and other migratory fish….

Provisions of the approval for the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project required the Augusta dam be altered to allow fish to migrate, according to another report by the corps.

savannah river paddlers

Festivals along the Savannah River near Augusta can attract hundreds of paddlers. Credit: newstimes.augusta.com

In addition, the WIIN Act provides for:

  • “[C]onstruction 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
  • “[R]emoval of the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam on completion of construction of the structure; and conveyance by the Secretary to Augusta-Richmond County, Georgia, of the park and recreation area adjacent to the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam, without consideration.”

Congress did not mandate a time frame for completing the work. The corps portrays the project as unfolding in multiple steps that will lead to a final recommendation to the secretary of the Army.

Public comments will be accepted until June 3, according to the corps. Comments may be sent to the following addresses:

  • [email protected]
  • Savannah District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
    Planning Division: ATTN Mr. Nathan Dayan
    100 West Oglethorpe Avenue
    Savannah, GA 31401-3640

 

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

1 reply
  1. Leroy H. Simkins, Jr., Augusta, Ga. says:

    David Pendered would do well to inquire beyond the prejudices and distorted information set forth by the Savannah River Keepers who have for years been trying to do away with the Lock and Dam even though it provides many good things for the two cities and the many stake-holder upstream. Shame on Ga Accents for not telling the whole story. It is incredible that the federal government can authorize such an expensive an destructive project with blessings from those who claim to want to protect the land and waters of the country.Report

    Reply

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