ATLANTA– A half-dozen members of the Georgia House and Senate met Tuesday to form an informal group to push for economic issues effecting people along the Savannah River.
The first meeting of the new Savannah River Caucus was made up of men who had slipped away from other commitments around the Capitol to establish an organization that may sponsor legislation and lobby federal officials. Working with a similar caucus being established by their South Carolina counterparts, the organizers want to safeguard the tourism and farming interests tied to lakes on the upper end of the river that is the border between the two states.
“I think the common bond of this caucus will be water issues,” said Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell.
Those attending Tuesday were from Augusta and upstream communities where the river is dammed to form a series of lakes. They are frustrated that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that manages the lakes doesn’t retain enough water in them to prevent the waterline from dropping. Lake Hartwell and Lake Thurmond both dropped 16 feet below full pool, exposing chimneys in Thurmond from houses that were inundated when the lake was built.
“What we want to do is rewrite that drought-management plan,” said Rep. Tom McCall, R-Elberton.
Powell said that the caucus and the South Carolina version will have enough influence to get the Corps’ attention.
The river touches nine state Senate districts and 20 House districts in Georgia.
Members on the lower end around Savannah are concerned about getting federal funding to deepen the river’s shipping channel and dealing with saltwater intrusion into the Floridan Aquifer they draw drinking water from. Powell said they would get involved in those issues as well if members ask them to.
An issue that affects resident all along both sides of the river is inter-basin transfers, the withdrawing of water from one rainwater-drainage basin for use by people or businesses in another. Powell and McCall have tried several years to outlaw the practice but have run into roadblocks because people in metro Atlanta depend on the transfers.
When South Carolina’s legislative session began in January, Rep. Don Bowen, R-Anderson, canvassed the 124-member S.C. House in an effort to find every lawmaker whose district touches the Savannah River. On Tuesday, Bowen could not be reached, but Rep. Bill Hixon, a North Augusta Republican, said to his knowledge, a South Carolina caucus has not yet met.
But Hixon hopes that such a group will gather soon.
The lawmaker said he’s spoken with the staff of area congressmen Joe Wilson and Jeff Duncan, along with the governor’s office about the water levels -- to no avail.
“No one can seem to get any straight answers from the Corps of Engineers,” said Hixon.
“We need to know what our levels are,” he added. “Our drinking water depends on the river.”
He said the lower river levels have forced the Edgefield County Water & Sewer Authority to consider extending its intake pipe in order to still draw water.
As for whether the new caucus would result in lawmakers of both states clustered in the Upper Savannah River squaring off against their down-river counterparts, Hixon said it was unlikely.
“Everybody wants to protect their turf, but the main thing is we want everybody to have water and to give our constituents answers.”
Historically, a divide has existed between the two states.
How to alleviate the saltwater intrusion problem, which more immediately threatens Bluffton and Hilton Head, remains unanswered. And legal challenges over Georgia’s harbor deepening, leveled in part by the S.C. Savannah River Maritime Commission, still hangs over the two states.