Fish passage plan for Savannah River takes shape

The newest fish passage design for New Savannah Bluff Lock & Dam includes rock ledges to be built on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River.

 

 

The newest proposed design for fish passage at New Savannah Bluff could divert up to 100 percent of the Savannah River’s flow to a series of rock ramps to be built on the channel’s South Carolina side.

The project, with a current price tag of $30.2 million, would allow migratory fish such as sturgeon, American shad and striped bass to access spawning habitat upstream.

Currently, those species are blocked by the 76-year-old lock and dam, which has lapsed into disrepair since the corps halted maintenance of the structure – and the river’s navigation channel – in 1979.

The fish passage project has become increasingly complex – and costly – since it was proposed in 1999, when the price estimate was $7 million.

Although the adjoining lock and dam are in need of renovations, the Army Corps of Engineers’ current plan includes only the fish passage structure, which is part of the mitigation plan for the $652 million deepening of Savannah Harbor.

According to a fact sheet released this week by the corps, the new design is known as an “off-channel rock ramp” and would look like a collection of boulders that create rapids in the river.

The structure would provide a constant flow through the boulders as long as the river’s total flow is at least 8,000 cubic feet per second.

If flows fall below that benchmark, the five gates in the dam would remain closed to allow 100 percent of the river’s flow to pass through the rock ramps.

Similarly, the corps summary said, if flows exceed 8,000 cubic feet per second, the gates can be opened to allow water to dissipate downstream.

The operating plan for the project includes five years of monitoring after construction to ensure that it fulfils its purpose.

Although funds from the Savannah Harbor project are expected to finance the fish passage plan, no money has been allocated for the renovation of the lock and dam.

The corps, which built the structure in 1937, concluded in 1999 that the dam no longer served commercial shipping – the purpose for which it was built. Its plan to demolish the structure was opposed by local governments and industries that rely on its pool of water.

In August, a consortium of stakeholders, including Augusta-Richmond County and North Augusta, agreed to finance a $300,000 federal study to gather new data on the cost and scope of the dam’s needed renovations. Once repaired, ownership of the project – and its maintenance responsibilities – would be turned over to the consortium.

Corps spokesman Billy Birdwell said the new study could be launched soon.

He said that the corps recently obtained congressional approval to negotiate an agreement with the consortium, under which the corps would accept the funds needed to complete the study.

“We haven’t started those negotiations, as the approval just came earlier this month,” Birdwell said, “but we are moving forward.”

Other members of the stakeholders’ consortium include Aiken County, DSM, Kimberly-Clark, General Chemical, Po­tash Corp. and South Carolina Electric & Gas Co.

 

Fish passage at New Savannah Bluff Dam studied
Fish passage planned for New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam
Fish passage is included in corps' harbor project

TIMELINE

1816: Commercial shipping on the Savannah River is born with the launch of the Enterprise, a steamboat owned by businessman Samuel Howard.

 

1820-1850s: As many as 20 commercial steamers travel the river, departing Augusta almost daily with up to 1,000 bales of cotton.

 

1850s-1900: River commerce dwindles as railroads haul more cargo and passengers.

 

1927: Congress authorizes New Savannah Bluff Lock & Dam, despite a corps study that found little economic benefit.

 

1937: New Savannah Bluff Lock & Dam is dedicated.

 

1950s: Oil and timber barges use the lock regularly.

 

1960s: Commerce dwindles again, and the use of the lock decreases.

 

1979: In the absence of commercial traffic, the corps ceases all maintenance on the river channel and the lock and dam.

 

1986: The corps announces plans to close the lock, but Augusta officials want it kept open and agree to renovate and lease the nearby park.

 

2000: A federal study recommends that the lock be dismantled and removed, and an experimental draw-down imitating a low-flow 100-year drought is conducted to illustrate how the river might look.

 

2001: Local governments agree to assume ownership of the project if Congress would finance repairs, estimated at that time to cost $6.8 million, compared with $5.3 million for demolition.

 

2002: Legislation requiring repairs is passed, but it does not include any funding for the project.

 

2005: Complete renovations are re-estimated at $22 million, which includes a fish passage. Local governments insist it be repaired at federal expense before they take title.

 

2006: The corps receives $1.19 million in planning and engineering funds for the renovations but no construction money.

 

2007: The corps concludes that a new study will be needed to recalculate the rising costs.

 

2009: The corps’ Savannah District lands $94.3 million in American Recovery & Reinvestment Act funds, but not a dime is allocated to the project.

 

2010: Congress continues to refuse to fund renovations, but a $7 million fish passage device is proposed as part of mitigation for a planned Savannah Harbor expansion.

 

2011: The National Marine Fisheries Service contends that fish structure is insufficient and once again concludes that the best option is to demolish and remove the dam.

 

2012: Stakeholder group that includes Augusta, North Augusta and various industries offers to finance a $300,000 study to update the structure’s repair needs, in hopes of using the data to seek federal funding.

 

2013: New studies show the fish passage alone will cost about $30.2 million — without any funds to repair the adjacent lock and dam.

 

Fact sheet about the plan

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