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