COLUMBIA — Despite a more elaborate sturgeon bypass proposed as part of the Savannah harbor expansion, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources remains worried about the potential effects on the endangered shortnose sturgeon.
The agency argues that the $32 million fish bypass to be constructed across from Augusta isn’t a remedy for habitat destruction resulting from the Georgia Ports Authority’s harbor expansion.
Last month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released its final environmental impact statement on the $653 million harbor-deepening project. Among the new details was a redesigned fish bypass – with a quadrupled price tag – intended to allow the shortnose and Atlantic sturgeon to migrate upstream.
The DNR’s environmental programs director, Bob Perry, says his agency’s objections remain – that the proposed measures will open up a new spawning habitat, but not estuarine habitat where the ocean meets the river, which is the category that will be damaged.
“The deepening of the river is going to impact hundreds of acres of shortnose sturgeon estuarine habitat down in the lower part of the river where the ocean is meeting the river,” he said. “Normally, if it’s in-kind mitigation, you figure out how you mitigate where the impacts are. But you can’t create marsh. You can’t create new estuary. Only the good Lord can do that.”
In short, the South Carolina environmental official said: “It’s an oranges-to-apples remedy. We’re going to have oranges.”
Despite the DNR’s concerns, the redesigned bypass came about after the corps received guidance from federal officials.
“It will carry most of the river around the dam in most circumstances,” David Berhart, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told the Savannah Morning News last month. “We have a lot more confidence it will be usable by sturgeon, both shortnose and Atlantic.”
Nevertheless, Perry said the increased environmental monitoring that was also proposed, along with the deluxe fish bypass, aren’t allaying the state agency’s fears. The state DNR will detail those among a slew of other concerns in its agency comments submitted to the corps by June 5.
Perry also predicted the upgraded bypass could require an eminent domain action on the South Carolina property owners at the site of the bypass near the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam in Augusta.
Perry said the DNR knows about fish bypasses, thanks to working with utilities and their hydropower structures in the last dozen years.
“That’s really where our experience rests, because we’ve been involved in 25 hydropower projects in South Carolina,” he said.
“What we’ve learned is (that) it’s almost impossible to pass shortnose sturgeon safely and effectively.”
Georgia is planning to deepen about 38 miles of the Savannah River and harbor from 42 feet to 47 feet in preparation for larger container vessels to enter shipping routes after the Panama Canal expansion in 2014.