- Associated Press - Monday, November 28, 2016

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) - An aging structure in the Savannah River that keeps water pooled around Augusta for drinking water, recreation and industry could be given new life by the effort to deepen the Port of Savannah. Or it could be replaced by a rock weir to allow fish migration under a recent proposal in the U.S. Senate.

The New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam keeps a deep pool of water in the Augusta area that cities use for drinking water and nearby industries depend on, as well as helping regulate high water. But its fate is now uncertain in part because of the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project. The project’s fate is expected to be determined by a congressional conference committee this fall.

After a disastrous drawdown of the river in the late 1990s by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, simulating what it would look like without the lock and dam, then-U.S. Rep. Charlie Norwood spearheaded an effort to put into the Water Resources Development Act a provision to repair the lock and dam and then turn over ownership to the city of North Augusta. But that repair was never funded.

Then, as part of the $706 million Savannah Harbor project, the corps proposed a fish ladder around the lock and dam to help the endangered shortnose sturgeon and other saltwater fish that spawn in fresh water find new spawning grounds up the river. That project includes a very limited repair of the lock and dam while providing for an alternate channel of rock ledges - a weir - on the South Carolina side to allow the fish to move around it.

But in September, the Senate passed an amendment to the Water Resources bill that would build a rock weir, a kind of rock dam that allows fish to pass through it through a series of channels and pools, and then removing the lock and dam. That proposal was not included in the House version of the bill, and it will have to be sorted out in a House-Senate conference committee.

The proposals have their champions and detractors.

While the lock, which was dedicated in 1937, was originally designed to make this section of the river navigable for boat traffic, one of its main functions now is maintaining a deeper pool of water upstream. Augusta, North Augusta and a number of different industries draw water from that pool, said Leroy Simkins Jr., whose family has owned land along the river for five generations.

“You’ve got these industries that depend upon it for water and you’ve got the two cities that depend upon it for water. And their pumping systems are at a level that wouldn’t work if the pool was gone,” he said.

The lock and dam can also be used to allow more water through in times of excess water, which is a crucial flood control function, Simkins said. Driving along Gum Swamp Road south of Beech Island and not far from the banks of the river, he waved his hand at the road.

“All of this was underwater,” he said, after flooding last January when high water from the river backed up through nearby creeks and ditches. At some points it was deep enough to see fish crossing it, he said. Simkins and other landowners up and down this stretch of river fear that changes to the way the river is regulated could make it worse.

As the Corps got into detailed design of the fish ladder project, the engineers realized they needed the lock and dam to push water into the fish passage so some work would need to be done on it, said Mackie McIntosh, the chief of civil works, programs and project management for the Savannah District. The fish ladder became part of the equation when it was determined that the Savannah Harbor expansion would affect those migratory fish because it would allow more saltwater to creep upriver and reduce their freshwater spawning grounds, said Savannah District spokesman Russell Wicke.

A way to lessen that impact is to allow those fish to get past the lock and dam in south Augusta, an area they haven’t had access to since the 1930s, when the lock and dam was built. That plan, which is estimated to cost about $36 million, would essentially divert the river channel through that fish passage around the lock and dam.

But the Savannah Harbor money will only be used for “a limited repair to only be sure that the hydraulic function for the fish passage works,” McIntosh said. That would involve some repair and modification of the gates, she said.

“It is not addressing all of these major issues with the cracks in the foundation and the operability and ease of use of the gates and the stability of the lock wall and all of the leaks in the lock,” McIntosh said. “None of that is being addressed because that is all ancillary as long as the structure is holding back water.”

Tonya Bonitatibus of Savannah Riverkeeper is opposed to spending money on repairing the lock and dam because it no longer serves its function and rock weirs over old lock and dams are already working, such as one built on the Cape Fear River in North Carolina. As it stands now, she fears the lock and dam “is going to fall into the river,” she said.

“It has been a very tense situation for everyone who is aware of how unstable this lock and dam is. It is a very compromised structure,” she said.

Moving forward on something else is the logical thing, Bonitatibus said.

“Augusta still has a massive issue on its hands because if that dam fails, there go our water intakes,” she said. Instead, the Corps should take out the lock and dam and build “a rock dam in its place that still holds the same (pool) but allows the fish to get through in that channel.”

However, Simkins said putting in a permanent rock dam means losing flood control.

“When you put a permanent structure in the river, whether it be all the way across the river or only a portion of the river, there’s no way to effectively regulate the elevation of the river come flood or high water conditions,” Simkins said.

Bonitatibus downplayed those flooding concerns and said the lock and dam isn’t the structure that should be used for that anyway.

“The way you control that is from the big dam” at Thurmond Lake, she said.

The Corps uses that dam in conjunction with the lock and dam to maintain the pool at a constant elevation, between 114-115 feet above mean sea level, Wicke said. When there is a need to release a lot of excess water from Thurmond, the gates at the lock and dam are raised to allow a greater flow of water through them. But Simkins said the Thurmond dam cannot control excess water from other sources, such as Stevens Creek, that can cause flooding.

With a $200 million public-private development in Project Jackson along the riverfront in North Augusta, which will include a new ballpark for the Augusta GreenJackets, as well as extensive residential developments such as Hammond’s Ferry on the waterfront, flood control will always be a concern, said City Administrator Todd Glover. But the city is part of that consortium with Augusta and the industries that rely on the full pool of river water that has been trying to find a solution since 2001 for the lock and dam, he said.

The congressional action “is the first interest we’ve seen in 15 years as far as a possible solution,” Glover said.

Another problem with the rock weir could be the cost. Thomas Robertson of Cranston Engineering Group said the Corps’ own documents show that building a rock weir over the lock and dam, which would have to be extended out thousands of feet so that it was the right slope, would cost $100 million.

“And it was discredited long ago,” he said. “The Senate language would guarantee we’d get the weir, which is what we don’t want.”

The Corps did throw out that number during a 2011 environmental impact statement on a rock weir at the site, but it was only a rough estimate and is not a number the Corps would rely on if it did a more thorough study, Wicke said.

Simkins said the approach he is focusing on is proposing compromise language to the conference committee that takes care of all parties. About 100 people, virtually every landowner along the river he has approached who will likely be affected, have signed on to that effort, he said. He appealed Tuesday to the Augusta Commission to join the effort, and Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis said “there’s more that we can get done.”

“Everybody upstream has a concern,” he said. “Some way, somehow this lock and dam has got to be fixed. The only way we can see to take care of people and fish and the river at the same doggone time without breaking the federal bank is to fix the lock and dam and build some sort of smaller (version) of this fish ladder to accommodate (those) fish.”


Information from: The Augusta Chronicle , https://www.augustachronicle.com

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