Some of the first components of the Savannah Harbor expansion, including a $32.2 million fish passage structure on the Savannah River near Augusta, might be financed by Georgia money to avoid the wait for congressional appropriations.
After 13 years of study, a formal “record of decision” was issued Friday by the Army’s assistant secretary for civil works that affirms federal approval for the $652 million dredging plan. Before it can start, however, several mitigation projects to lessen environmental damage – including fish passage at New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam – must be completed.
Billy Birdwell, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers’ Savannah District, said discussions are under way to possibly begin some mitigation projects earlier with money already set aside by the state for its 30 percent cost share.
“Congress has to appropriate the money and they have some set aside, but not all of it,” Birdwell said. “We’re also working on an agreement with state of Georgia to maybe use their money early instead of piecemealing it throughout the construction phases.”
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal is willing to use state money to expedite some of the projects.
“We want it started yesterday, so to speak, so the state will partner with the feds in whatever way gets the ball rolling,” said Brian Robinson, the governor’s spokesman.
Georgia’s share of the cost will be 30 to 40 percent.
“As far as the split, I’m told it’s a complicated formula, but we’d celebrate if it turned out to be 70/30,” Robinson said.
The fish structure will be built mostly on the South Carolina side of the river and is designed to allow upstream migration of both the shortnose and Atlantic sturgeon, along with other saltwater species – such as American shad and striped bass – that spawn in rivers.
It is one of several mitigation projects designed to offset the environmental impacts of dredging and deepening 38 miles of coastal channels – from the current 42-foot depth to 47 feet – to accommodate larger cargo ships.
Other projects include restoring marshes affected by disposal of dredge material; addition of about 2,200 acres to Savannah National Wildlife Refuge; construction of a freshwater impoundment to be used for a backup water supply during droughts and tide-induced saltwater intrusion incidents; annual payments to Georgia to stock striped bass in the Savannah River; and a system to inject dissolved oxygen into the harbor area to improve water quality.
The mitigation efforts jointly account for 40 to 50 percent of the project’s total cost. Corps officials hope to begin working on some projects in 2013.