Rick Allen and Georgia delegation aim to save the Lock and Dam
Augusta, Ga., July 18, 2020
By: Tom Corwin
July 18, 2020
Work on a bill that could repair New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam and preserve the current pool of water in the Savannah River between Augusta and North Augusta took another step forward last week.
U.S. Rep. Rick Allen, R-Ga., said an amendment to repair the lock and dam and turn it over to the cities was proposed for the Water Resources Development Act of 2020 while it was being debated in the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. The amendment was put forth by committee member U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Ga., and has backing on the panel from U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson Jr., D-Ga., so there is bipartisan support, Allen said.
The amendment would reauthorize the lock and dam and require the secretary of the Army, who oversees the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to provide $53 million for repair, maintenance and operation to the cities and Aiken County. It would also require the Georgia Ports Authority to provide $22 million to create a fish habitat for endangered sturgeon and other migratory fish to use as a spawning area below the lock and dam.
The amendment was withdrawn before the bill passed out of the committee, but Allen said “it is still under consideration and we feel real good about this thing becoming law when this WRDA bill comes to the floor.”
Similar legislation is moving through the Senate, and it is likely that those bills will be resolved through a conference committee.
The legislation would upend a plan by the Corps to remove the lock and dam and replace it with a series of rock weirs that would allow the endangered sturgeon to migrate past the lock and dam to historic spawning grounds in the Augusta Shoals. The project is necessary to mitigate damage from the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project to the sturgeons’ spawning grounds in the river.
But Allen said the weirs would not maintain the pool at its current level of 114.5 feet above sea level, which he said previous legislation required, and would drop it by “four to five feet below pool level, which is unacceptable.” That option is bitterly opposed by the cities and is the subject of a federal lawsuit from the state of South Carolina and the city of Augusta, among others.
“Because of the Corps’ position and their refusal to do the will of the people, the only way we could deal with this is to go back to the drawing board and do it legislatively,” Allen said.
The Corps’ solution is approved by the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service as the only viable way to pass the sturgeon past the current structure. But Allen said a similar fish passage for sturgeon on the Cape Fear River provided no evidence the sturgeon were able to navigate it.
“What we have come up with is a solution and everybody has bought into it, and that is to mitigate the fish downstream from the lock and dam and for the two cities to take over the operation and maintenance in collaboration with the Corps of Engineers,” he said. “The legislation would specifically give us the authority to maintain the pool and put the lock and dam back into good operating order.”
The Fisheries Service, however, in a 2018 letter responding to a comparison of the New Savannah Bluff project to Cape Fear, said the Savannah River weirs would have a much lower slope and would be wider, with larger pools for resting, and that a study by a lab in Massachusetts found the sturgeon could cross it. Allen pointed out that a peer review of the Corps’ proposed option speculated that sturgeon returning downstream at a higher velocity with the current would be in danger of striking the rock weir and dying, a criticism the Corps has refuted.
A similar plan to the current amendment was passed by Congress in the early 2000s but did not include funding, so it did not come to pass. Any new plan would have to come with funding for the Corps to accomplish it, said Russell Wicke, the spokesman for the Corps’ Savannah District.
Allen said he is not celebrating yet but is optimistic that repairing the lock and dam will happen and set the issue, and the full river pool, to rest.
“I think it works for everybody, and I think it will get this thing behind us once and for all,” he said.
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