One of the more intricate environmental hurdles associated with Georgia’s $600 million plan to deepen Savannah Harbor is close to a final resolution, according to U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson.
The issue is a $7 million modification to New Savannah Bluff Dam near Augusta that would allow endangered shortnose sturgeon to access an additional 20 miles of inland habitat.
Although the Army Corps of Engineers proposed the fish passage to mitigate the degradation of a coastal sturgeon habitat the harbor project would create, the mitigation package must have the concensus of four federal agencies.
One of them, the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Marine Fisheries Service, has raised questions of whether the modification near Augusta is sufficient to move fish upstream.
Although funding and many other issues will require negotiation, Isakson said the mitigation plan is close to being resolved.
“We’re at the point where we’re going over the last hurdle in terms of the port of Savannah, environmentally,” he said, during an interview with Morris News Service. “We’re close to reaching a deal on the blunt-nosed sturgeon at the Savannah River Lock and Dam in Augusta, which is the last environmental hurdle.”
The shortnose is the smaller, and rarer, of two sturgeon species that live in the Savannah River. The larger Atlantic sturgeon is not endangered but has been proposed for greater federal protection.
New studies this year confirmed the presence of at least one shortnose — outfitted with a transmitter — that traveled from coastal estuaries almost 200 river miles to the base of the dam, where it was documented three separate times in March and April.
Scientists are fine-tuning a proposed fish passage design that would be built on the dam’s South Carolina side and could include a rock ramp with a series of ledges that would allow fish to move around the dam and upstream. The structure could also benefit American shad and striped bass that typically move upstream.
The proposal also includes an annual payment to Georgia’s Wildlife Resources Division to aid with ongoing efforts to restore striped bass to the river.
In addition to the Interior Department, the harbor project’s approval also depends on agreements from the Department of the Army (Corps of Engineers), the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Interior Department’s Fish & Wildlife Service.
Savannah is vying for federal money to deepen its harbor — from 42 to 47 or 48 feet — to accommodate larger cargo ships that will begin using the region after a major expansion of the Panama Canal is completed in 2014.
On Tuesday, the chairman of Georgia’s state Senate Committee on Natural Resources & the Environment, Sen. Ross Tolleson, R-Perry, expressed confidence in the project’s envirinmental safeguards.
“I feel like we’re in good shape from an environmental standpoint,” he said. “I think the real issue is going to come down to how are we going to fund it.”