New Savannah Bluff fish bypass plan improved

Although the Obama administration’s fiscal year 2014 federal budget proposes far less than expected for the Savannah Harbor deepening, one of the project’s key measures – a fish passage structure in the Savannah River near Augusta – is likely to stay near the front of the line for construction funding.

“A lot of the mitigation must be in place before they would start the actual dredging,” said spokesman Billy Birdwell, of the Army Corps of Engineers’ Savannah District.

The $32.2 million fish passage structure, which would allow sturgeon, American shad and other fish to move upstream past New Savannah Bluff Lock & Dam, is a component of the $652 million plan to deepen the harbor from 42 feet to 47 feet to accommodate larger cargo ships.

Georgia has already set aside $231 million to help with its share of the project, and state officials were hoping for $70 million to $100 million in fiscal 2014 federal money to push the project ahead. Instead, the administration, which has reduced spending in many areas, proposed just $1.28 million.

Despite the funding disappointment, engineers continue to plan and modify the fish passage structure to be built below Augusta on the river’s South Carolina side.

“It has gone through several iterations, and its design has changed somewhat,” Birdwell said. “Right now, it looks significantly different from earlier designs.”

The previous plan would create a horseshoe-shape bypass that has since been altered to become longer and wider, like a parenthesis, Birdwell said.

“As they do design work and planning, sometimes things may need to be changed as engineers find better ways to do things, or make things better,” he said. “We’ve changed the design, and are in the process of examining it again to see if a larger, wider ‘parenthesis’ should be more meandering.”

The fish passage is one of several mitigation projects designed to offset the environmental impacts of dredging and deepening 38 miles of coastal channels.

Other projects include restoring marshes affected by disposal of dredge material; adding about 2,200 acres to Savannah National Wildlife Refuge; constructing a freshwater impoundment to be used for a backup water supply during droughts and tide-induced saltwater intrusion; making annual payments to Georgia to stock striped bass in the Savannah River; and adding a system to inject dissolved oxygen into the harbor area to improve water quality.

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