Study promises better understanding of Savannah River Basin

If we are to understand something, we must study it.” I’m not sure who first offered that profound statement, but I have no doubt it’s been uttered more than just a time or two, especially in government circles.


In the Savannah River Basin we’ve been hearing about studies of our river for decades. Another one recently made news. This one is called the Second Interim Savannah River Basin Comprehensive Study. We won’t see a report for about a year, but you can be sure folks will be lined up well in advance to get a copy. The river is that important.

To understand why this particular study is so crucial to those of us who live and work in the 313-mile-long river basin, you have to go back about 25 years. Back then, we had plenty of water in the river and in the three lakes above Augusta. In 1990 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers concluded that a comprehensive study should be done to understand how best to manage the water stored in those lakes. Not to be left out, in 1993 the Environmental Protection Agency Region IV undertook its own watershed project in the Savannah basin.


WITH THE CORPS’ recommendation on the table and EPA’s effort well-established, in 1996 Congress got involved. In that year the Water Resources Development Act included an authorization for the Corps to conduct a comprehensive water resources management study of our basin. The language in the law directs “a comprehensive study to address current and future needs for flood damage prevention and reduction, water supply and other related water resources needs in the Savannah River Basin.” The law also directs the Corps to coordinate with the EPA’s ongoing study.


IN WASHINGTON-SPEAK an authorization is important, but equally as important is an appropriation. Just because Congress gives you permission to do something doesn’t necessarily mean it is going to pay for it – at least right away. The comprehensive study is structured so that it relies also on funding from Georgia and South Carolina.

By 1999 the Corps completed what it called a “reconnaissance study” that identified the work that needed to be done to address two-dozen issues, ranging from water supply to aquatic plant control.

Then, the first portion of the comprehensive study was completed in 2006 at a cost of $1.8 million. For its investment the Corps got, among other things, a computer model that shows how fluctuating reservoir levels affect stakeholders downstream. That information was crucial in developing the drought contingency plans the Corps has been using to regulate the levels in the lakes and the flow downstream.

So, here we come now to the fall of 2013, and work is just beginning on a second interim study. In the words of Col. Thomas Tickner, the district Corps commander, this work “will get us closer to understanding the complexities of the basin.”

How is that, you might ask? The two big questions to be answered over the next year are:

• How low can releases from Thurmond Lake be reduced during drought?

• How long can the low flows continue before damaging the economy and environment?

The questions are critical ones to answer as the Crops examines long-term changes to its Drought Management Plan.

The agency is getting a lot of help this time. It has the benefit of the work product from EPA’s watershed project. The departments of natural resources in Georgia and South Carolina are engaged. The Nature Conservancy is participating, as is the Southeastern Natural Sciences Academy, which has an incredible volume of research already collected on the lower Savannah River.

While the scientists and engineers are doing their work other people and organizations throughout the reaches of the basin are engaged in cooperative efforts to avoid a water war between Georgia and South Carolina. State Sen. Bill Jackson of Appling stresses the importance that “our states work collaboratively on adaptive oversight.”

To drive Jackson’s point home, the governors and lieutenant governors of both states joined a confab of the two-state Savannah River Basin Caucus on the shore of Lake Hartwell last month. It was good to see political and business interests from both states in common accord, at least for the moment.

The Savannah River Basin presents a myriad of challenges that can easily turn friend into foe. Municipal and industrial water needs and harbor-dredging are convenient flashpoints. While Georgia communities are cool to inter basin transfers, how would they react if Greenville-Spartanburg has a need to increase its existing inter basin withdrawal? How will South Carolina respond if Georgia industries and utilities want to increase their discharges, which already account for 90 percent of what goes into the river?

Like the confluence of the Tugaloo River and Seneca River to form the mighty Savannah River, the interim study offers the opportunity for a grand convergence of science and politics.

We don’t know yet what conclusions will come from this study, but we do know that any study will lead to a better understanding of
the complex ecosystem of the Savannah River Basin.


(The writer is a former mayor
of Augusta; a former regional director for the Atlanta Region of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; and HUD’s former acting assistant deputy secretary for field policy and management.)



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