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Planned removal of 1937 lock, dam to help fish spawn in Savannah River draws criticism

augusta lock, savannah river

The lock and dam built in 1937 across the Savannah River, in Augusta, is to be removed to allow two endangered species of sturgeon to reach historic spawning grounds. File/Credit: sas.usace.army.mil

By David Pendered

The newly released federal plan to promote spawning by endangered fish in the Savannah River north of Augusta ran smack into opposition last week from residents who don’t like a drop in the level of the river or the demolition of a lock and dam built in 1937 – two consequences of the plan.

augusta fish weir passage fonsi proposed

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is accepting public comments on its proposal to remove a lock and dam near Augusta and build a fish passage in the deep channel of the Savannah River. Credit: http://balancingthebasin.armylive.dodlive.mil

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released the draft plan Feb. 15, which triggered the Feb. 16 start of a 30-day public comment period. The corps plans to convene an “interactive workshop” in Augusta on March 6 at a location to be determined.

The corps’ draft finding of no significant impact, Fish Passage at New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam, is expected to culminate this summer with a final decision from the corps on how to meet federal requirements to build a fish passage that meets various criteria regarding cost and impact.

The plan responds to a requirement of the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project, which is deepening the shipping channel at the Port of Savannah to accommodate the massive tankers being adopted by the shipping industry.

As part of the deepening project, the corps is to enable two species of endangered fish, shortnose and Atlantic sturgeon, to reach historic spawning grounds in the Savannah River north of Augusta. These grounds have been largely beyond their reach since the lock and dam were constructed. The facilities were built at the end of the Great Depression to promote commercial navigation along the river, a trade that ceased in 1979, according to a report by the corps.

The project must be started prior to January 2021 and be completed within three years, according to terms of the deepening project.

One event that spurred public awareness of the corps’ plan last week was the corps’ simulation of the lower water levels that are to be expected once the fish passage is built – and the corps’ ensuing decision to stop the simulation on Feb. 15, earlier than the planned end date of about Feb. 22.

atlantic sturgeon

The endangered Atlantic sturgeon is an armor-plated fish that can reach 14 feet and more than 800 pounds, as evidenced in this undated photo; the fish co-existed with dinosaurs during the last ice age, according to the National Resource Defense Council. Credit: nrdc.org

Residents were already complaining about their lack of access from docks to the river, and the appearance of the shoreline, when the corps was compelled to stop the simulation. As the corps described its call to end the test early:

  • “The decision to end the simulation ahead of schedule was made after a concerned homeowner alerted Corps officials Friday afternoon about river bank instability discovered in the Goodale Landing community on the Georgia side of the river. Corps officials responded to the concern by immediately dispatching a team of engineers to inspect the area, and after inspection recommended a return to normal river levels.
  • “Officials spent Thursday and Friday on the river taking readings and measurements, and were able to gather all the data necessary before they began returning the river to normal levels Friday evening.”

The corps didn’t describe the nature of conditions reported by the homeowner.

The highest profile opponent to emerge to the plan thus far is U.S. Rep. Rick Allen. Allen’s 12th District borders the Savannah River from north of Augusta to an area north Savannah. Allen, a Republican, hasn’t issued a statement, but his website cites a published report in which Allen encourages constituents to participate in the public comment process:

Rick Allen

Rick Allen

  • “Everybody needs to show up and say you can’t do this.”

The Augusta City Council and North Augusta (S.C.) have voted to support retaining the lock and dam. The Savannah Riverkeeper launched its Rock the Dam preservation effort, which garnered 520 signatures before the petition was closed.

In addition, owners of riverfront property that no longer would have docks extending into the river have come out against the plan, according to a reports by wrdw.com and augustachronicle.com.

All this said, this particular proposal is no surprise.

The corps announced in June 2018 that four proposals called for the removal of the lock and dam. In November, the corps announced the current proposal.

The fish passage would be 500 feet wide and comprised of a rock ramp sloping upstream from the site of the existing dam, according to the corps’ draft finding. This is how the finding describes the features of the planned fish passage:

“Utilizing the sources stated above with the understanding that the structure will be fully developed after this report is approved, the features of the fish passage include:

  • “Configuration of rock boulders in a manner that provides a weir surface over and between the boulders throughout the length of the ramp.
  • “Slope of the structure between the base to the top of the ramp will have an average slope no steeper than 2 percent (1:50).
    augusta lock, savannah river

    The lock and dam built in 1937 across the Savannah River, in Augusta, is to be removed to allow two endangered species of sturgeon to reach historic spawning grounds. File/Credit: sas.usace.army.mil

  • “The structure would have a terraced cross section, meaning that the bottom elevation of the structure varies across the ramp going from the shallowest depth along the South Carolina bank to the deepest depth along the Georgia bank. This terraced cross section mimics the flow around a bend in natural channels where the thalweg, or deepest portion of the river, would be located along the outer bend with the shallowest portion of the river along the inside of the bend, where sandbars would typically form. This terraced structure allows for flow to concentrate in this outer bend along the Georgia side of the river with slower moving, more shallow water depths along the South Carolina side of the river.
  • “Since the structure will span the full width of the river the design will be such that it is able to withstand the forces of the full river flow for a full range of possible conditions. The armoring along the banks along with the weir stone placement and design will protect the structure from the potentially damaging forces of water.”

Note to readers: According to the corps, “Comments can also be submitted in writing via U.S. mail to the Savannah District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Planning Division, ATTN: Ms. Robin Armetta (PM-P), 100 West Oglethorpe Avenue, Savannah, Georgia 31401-3604, or in writing via email at CESAS-PD@usace.army.mil.”


David Pendered

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.


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