We have a chance to improve the future of the Savannah River with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' proposal to dredge Savannah Harbor. While the dredging project comes with significant environmental harm to the harbor, the Corps would be required to mitigate this harm, investing in river restoration upstream.
As the recent Augusta Chronicle article by Rob Pavey explains ("New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam demolition reproposed," March 15) the National Marine Fisheries Service has told the Corps that it must mitigate for the damage dredging would do to clean water, wetlands and habitat for fish and wildlife -- specifically the endangered shortnose sturgeon. The NMFS maintains that if the Corps is going to dredge the harbor, it must remove New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam, the first dam on the Savannah River near Augusta, about 185 miles upriver from the ocean.
WHILE THE CONSERVATION group American Rivers does not support the dredging project -- there are simply too many issues yet to be resolved -- we agree with the NMFS that dam removal is the only way to begin mitigating the impacts of dredging.
The Corps has proposed building a fishway at New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam. But that isn't sufficient. Only total removal of the dam should be considered as mitigation because the Corps' fishway design simply won't work for sturgeon . Further, dam removal is cheaper when full costs of a properly designed fishway -- including overdue dam maintenance estimated to cost $22 million dollars -- and ongoing costs of operation and monitoring are considered.
MORE THAN 800 dams have been removed across the United States, and American Rivers anticipates the 1,000th dam will be removed this year. More and more communities are embracing the removal of dams that have outlived their usefulness. Even communities once opposed to dam removal have come to accept it, once they see the free-flowing river and new recreation, clean water, fish, wildlife and economic benefits it provides.
If the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam is removed, water users who draw from the impoundment still could have a reliable water supply. The intakes could be extended to the free-flowing river, or otherwise modified. Augusta's waterfront along the impoundment would be enhanced by the creation of additional green space and potential new parks and trails in the floodplain.
Many issues surrounding the harbor dredging still need to be resolved, but the NMFS is right to insist any mitigation plans should include removal of New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam. The community should use this opportunity to visualize the possibilities, plan for the future and embrace the benefits that a healthier, free-flowing Savannah River would bring to future generations.
(The writer is the Southeast regional director of the conservation group American Rivers.)