EDITOR'S NOTE: A story in Tuesday's edition of The Augusta Chronicle incorrectly stated when environmental mitigation for the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project must be complete.The National Marine Fisheries Service issued an updated "biological opinion" on Oct. 12 that allows work on a fish passage at the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam to start in January 2021, and no longer requires that mitigation to be finished before the beginning of dredging in Savannah's inner harbor.
The final phase of the outer harbor portion of the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project is officially underway as of Dec. 1, representatives with the Savannah District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer announced this week.
The project, which first began in 2015, will deepen the harbor from its current 42 feet to 47 feet, will allow large ships that are now coming through the Panama Canal. The latest phase will complete the deepening from Fort Pulaski to nearly 20 miles into the Atlantic Ocean, according to Spencer Davis, project manager.
Later, the Corps will begin deepening the inner harbor – from Fort Pulaski to the Garden City port. Corps officials estimate the inner harbor deepening will be complete in 2022.
Because the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project will cause salt water to intrude into coastal freshwater spawning grounds for the endangered shortnose sturgeon and other fish, the Corps must provide mitigation for that habitat loss. .
The Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, passed in 2016, authorizes a rock weir and fish passage, while deauthorizing the Lock and Dam. Work on the fish passage is expected to begin in January of 2021..
Several local leaders, including the mayors of Augusta and North Augusta, oppose that plan and want to see the Lock and Dam rehabilitated. They took their case to Washington in July and got a pledge from U.S. Rep. Allen to take the lead in drafting legislative language that would authorize money for repairs.
For locals, it’s all about “maintaining the pool,” from which both cities and nearby industries draw water, Robertson said. A working Lock and Dam has gates that can be opened and closed. A rock weir can’t be manipulated.
Up to five hopper dredges have been committed to the latest effort in Savannah, each working 24-hour shifts. Hopper dredges can only be used during the winter and early spring in the Savannah harbor area due to environmental considerations. Experience shows fewer encounters with certain sea turtles and endangered sturgeon during these months.
In addition, the dredging contractor hired by the Corps of Engineers at times employs trawlers to move in front of the dredges to capture and relocate aquatic animals to a safer area away from the dredges. During the capture and release effort, specialists tag and register each relocated turtle or fish for future tracking.
The SHEP is projected to bring $282 million in net benefits each year to the nation, mostly in transportation cost savings. The nation will see $7.30 of benefits for every $1 spent on construction, according to the Corps’ latest economic analysis.
Staff writer James Folker contributed to this article.