Long before mammoth cargo ships steam into an expanded Port of Savannah, migrating fish could be swimming upriver past Augusta for the first time in decades.
“The Augusta project would be done early in the process, before we even start deepening the harbor,” said Billy Birdwell, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, which issued its final study last week in support of the $652 million harbor overhaul.
Although the expansion mainly affects 38 miles of the Savannah River between the port and the Atlantic Ocean, the loss of coastal habitat for two species of sturgeon required major mitigation efforts that include a fish passage structure at New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam in Augusta.
“It’s being done to open up new spawning and habitat area for the sturgeon, because when we start deepening the harbor, some of the habitat there will be lost,” Birdwell said.
New Savannah Bluff has been a barrier to upstream fish migration since it was built 74 years ago. Although earlier fish ladder designs called for a small structure with rock ledges, its ability to move sturgeon upstream was questioned by federal wildlife agencies.
The expanded, re-designed fishway that helped clinch the harbor expansion deal’s ultimate approval will be much larger and its $7 million price tag has risen to $32.2 million, according to the corps’ completed plan.
“It will be a much larger passage than it was initially,” Birdwell said. “It started as just a horseshoe but other agencies we worked with determined it would not work, so it was redesigned and the costs went up significantly.”
The bypass, for which construction funds could be available as early as 2013, will be built 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 inland rivers.
Fish that can bypass New Savannah Bluff would have access to about 20 additional miles of river – all the way from south Richmond County to the Augusta Diversion Dam at the canal headgates area.
The harbor’s mitigation plan also calls for payments totaling $3.3 million to Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources to help finance striped bass recovery efforts in the Savannah River.