More than 460 people and agencies sent in ideas of what needs to be done with the aging New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam on the Savannah River, and that will help guide the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on what it needs to study in terms of a recommendation, a spokesman for the Savannah District said.
The comment period that ended last week brought in 466 comments, some of them quite lengthy, that will need to be pored over, said Billy Birdwell, senior public affairs specialist for the district office.
“We have to go through there, we have to sort them out, we have to put them in categories,” he said. “And then that helps us to determine, what is the real public interest on how we are to focus the next phase, which is the study itself. What should we be looking at?”
The aging Lock and Dam has been a source of concern and frustration for some landowners who want to see it repaired and restored, which was authorized many years ago but never funded. The ongoing Savannah Harbor Expansion Project, however, will cause saltwater to creep into freshwater spawning grounds in the river for the endangered shortnose sturgeon and other fish and as mitigation for that impact a fish passage has been proposed around the Lock and Dam that would allow those fish to access spawning grounds upstream that they may not have been able to access since the structure was built in the 1930s.
The Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act passed late last year authorizes a rock weir and fish passage that would preserve the pool of water upstream that Augusta and local industries rely on while deauthorizing the Lock and Dam. A large crowd of local landowners gathered last month to express concerns about that plan, and its potential impact on the pool and on flooding, concerns which Corps officials said are unfounded.
The Corps will be sifting through the comments with an eye toward what it needs to include in a study, Birdwell said.
“Some of them may actually contain information that points us in a direction we had not thought about going before,” he said. While that will take a while - the Corps does not have a timeline for it - the number of comments is not unusual, Birdwell said. A previous comment period for an early study of the Savanah Harbor project attracted thousands of responses, he said.
“It’s not the number, it’s more of the quality and the content that we are looking at,” Birdwell said. “That’s what we’re most interested in.”
Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis, for instance, sent a letter last week outlining the city’s position after speaking with many businesses and civic leaders who have an interest in the river. He said there is a “shared interest” in maintaining the pool “consistent with current levels that is sustainable to meet current and future uses (with) no increase in flooding risk to those above and below (the Lock and Dam) and our desire not to delay” the Savannah project. Davis noted the original purpose of the Lock and Dam was for commercial navigation on the river.
“It is because of this original intent that Augusta further advocates for repair of the lock in order to maintain the pool for navigation upstream & downstream, water supply, manufacturing operations and recreational use and other activities,” Davis wrote. Concerning the fish passage, however, “Augusta remains neutral on how best to accomplish this” because it was never part of the original intent or history of the Lock and Dam, he wrote.
Once the study is designed, “we look at multiple alternatives,” Birdwell said. That study will be put out in draft form as well for public comment, he said.
“You’ll see some of these areas and the alternatives that we looked at and studied and how we did it and the conclusions that we came to, to make a recommendation,” Birdwell said. He did not have a timeline for that either, except to say it would not be soon.
“It will be measured in months, plural,” Birdwell said.
Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or firstname.lastname@example.org