As it prepares to make a final recommendation to its division headquarters next month, the head of the Savannah District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been discussing three options for New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam with local, state and federal officials, according to some who have been in those meetings.
The two new options would keep the pool of water in the Savannah River between Augusta and North Augusta at a higher elevation, a key concern for those officials and a criticism of the preferred option.
As it prepares to create a fish passage at the lock and dam to allow endangered Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon into historic spawning grounds at the Augusta Shoals that have been cut off since the structure was completed in 1937, the Savannah District is still analyzing the draft report, spokesman Russell Wicke said. The report recently underwent what the Corps calls an “external independent peer review,” and the district engineers are still “processing feedback from that,” he said.
The district now expects to send its report to the South Atlantic Division headquarters in Atlanta by mid-July, Wicke said.
The report will be “scrubbed pretty well before it goes to Atlanta,” he said.
The district received nearly 500 comments on its initial draft report during the 60-day comment period, and “we have to respond to all of those,” Wicke said. “We’re coming to the end of that part.”
Over the past couple of months, the district’s commander, Col. Daniel Hibner has met with a number of Georgia and South Carolina leaders who have expressed concerns about the project. Those concerns were brought into sharp focus in February when a Corps simulation of its preferred alternative, known as Alternative 2-6d, left the pool at least a couple of feet below normal in downtown Augusta.
The lowering exposed hazards and left docks and boats sitting in mud. That alternative involves constructing a rock weir across the channel that would mostly maintain the pool but allow for fish passage over it and also require Lock and Dam Park to serve as a floodplain, which officials say would make the park unsuitable for other purposes.
Hibner is still talking about that alternative but also about two others that would involve involve a rock weir but would maintain the pool at a greater elevation. One is 2-6a, which would have a higher weir but would also require buying land for flood mitigation because it would be more likely to cause incidental flooding, according to North Augusta Mayor Bob Pettit, who met with Hibner in May with Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis.
In a blog post in March, Wicke noted that while this would leave the pool about a foot and a half higher than the preferred alternative at the lock and dam site, it would also cause occasional nuisance flooding and require land purchases to mitigate that, which is why it was not recommended initially.
Another alternative being discussed is a rock weir with a gated channel on the Georgia side, said U.S. Rep. Rick Allen, R-Ga., who met with Hibner earlier this month. According to the Corps’ initial draft report, that is one of the more expensive weir options and would cost roughly twice what its preferred alternative would.
None of the three alternatives are acceptable, Allen said.
“All replace the lock and dam with a full-width river rock weir and do not maintain the pool as specified in the law,” he said, referring to the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act of 2016. “I continue to stand with the community and oppose all three of these alternatives.”
The federal law requires the Corps to build a structure that allows for fish passage but is also able “to maintain the pool for navigation, water supply, and recreational activities, as in existence on the date of enactment of this Act,” which was Dec. 16, 2016. The pool was at 114.5 feet above sea level then, and Allen and Pettit say that is the level the Corps is required by law to maintain.
U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who met with Hibner earlier this month, sent a letter to the Corps’ leadership saying the preferred alternative “does not appear to meet the requirements of the plain text of the legislation or the intent of Congress when it passed the WIIN Act. Communities like North Augusta and Augusta have invested millions in improvements along their waterfront, and to say that Congress intended to thwart the economic growth by eliminating or severely hampering access to the river would be wrong.”
A decision by the division is still expected in late August, and the Corps will hold a public meeting after that to explain the decision and answer questions, Wicke said.
By Tom Corwin