Commission votes to slow work on whitewater project at lock and dam

An effort to develop a whitewater rapids park in conjunction with the removal or modification of the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam was delayed by the Augusta Commission Tuesday.

 

The plan was to hire McLaughlin Whitewater, which designed the rapids park on the Chattahoochee in Columbus, Ga., for $10,000 plus travel expenses. A commission committee last week approved City Administrator Janice Allen Jackson making the expenditure, although it was beneath the threshold requiring commission approval.

On Tuesday, Com-missioner Sammie Sias pulled the agenda item and said he wanted to delay the expenditure up to 60 days until the commission can get more information about the status of the lock and dam. Mayor Pro Tem Mary Davis said “different efforts” that have been afoot needed a seat at the table prior to the commission moving forward. Representatives of those efforts did not appear at meetings last week or Tuesday when the agenda item was discussed.

The rapids proposal is largely the work of Savannah Riverkeeper, which envisions creating a “whitewater destination” to entertain millennials as the crumbling dam is removed and a fish ladder installed to mitigate the fish kills associated with the massive Savannah Harbor expansion project downstream.

Riverkeeper Executive Director Tonya Bonitatibus told commissioners Tuesday that while the rapids planning may be delayed, nothing will stop the harbor deepening project, and with it the Army Corps of Engineers will begin planning an “in-river solution” in the fall to move the fish and discard the decommissioned lock and dam.

Opponents who believe they can get federal laws changed to reverse the Corps’ position on abandoning the failing structures, or funding to fully repair the lock and dam, are likely incorrect because accomplishing those changes would further delay the harbor deepening project, she said.

The Corps is now required by law to preserve the pool around Augusta that was created by the lock and dam many years ago, but likely will consider it “easier just to go upriver and put rocks all the way across and get rid of the whole (lock and dam),” rather than build in the current area, Bonitatibus said.

With input from the consultants, however, the Corps could opt to replace the dam with a rock weir that facilitates fish passage and creates a rapids system while possibly preserving the locks, she said.

Last week Savannah Riverkeeper operations director Mary Jacobson said the project would increase fishing, birding, kayaking and other activities in the area, with an estimated $30 million annual tourism impact.

 

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