Fish bypass provides best solution to Lock and Dam conundrum

FILE/STAFF Water from the Savannah River flows through the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam.

I read with interest the opinion piece “Replacing, not repairing, New Savannah Bluff Dam is clearly best choice,” in the Sunday, Oct. 1 edition of The Augusta Chronicle. It was written by Frank Carl, founder of, and now the science adviser to, the Savannah Riverkeeper.

 

As I consider the consequences his preferred approach would present for North Augusta, I reach a different conclusion.

Let me state the obvious: North Augusta’s growth and development depends on preservation of the Savannah River pool at its present level along our city’s riverfront. That importance cannot be overstated. I believe it is equally important to Augusta’s economic future.

I am more concerned about protecting North Augusta residents from the risks of flooding.

The Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act has language specifically identifying two alternatives as replacement for the Lock and Dam. Both require replacing it with a pile of rocks across the breadth of the river.

In addition to specifying the alternatives, the WIIN Act also includes a provision which should answer my first concern: The current pool elevation has to be maintained for water supply and recreational activities for communities upstream of the Lock and Dam.

Federal Emergency Management Agency regulations mandate that any change in a river channel or floodplain must cause no rise in the 100-year flood plain. We face a conundrum: The pool elevation cannot be lowered, and the flood levels cannot be raised.

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Rock weirs cannot comply with both of these requirements. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers already has publicly acknowledged the final pool level could be lower than the current level to avoid increased flooding if either of the rock weir alternatives were adopted.

Existing Corps policy substantiates the conclusion that a fixed elevation weir or spillway will require lowering the river pool elevation to reduce flooding. The Corps raises the gates of the dam when high flows occur, resulting in a lower water elevation upstream of the dam, and reducing the risk of flooding for North Augusta residents.

The Corps argues that raising the gates is not flood control, according to its definition. But there can be no disagreement that it is a flood mitigation action. The stated purpose for raising the gates may be to protect the structure, but there can be no other conclusion than it reduces upstream flooding.

Dr. Carl’s column makes a couple of important statements. Without question, the Corps is the driving force to remove the dam. It also correctly credits the cities of Augusta and North Augusta as preventing the Corps from implementing its earlier attempt to remove the dam.

U.S. Rep. Charlie Norwood ended talk of removal when he successfully got Congress to authorize rehabilitation of the dam. Those who rely on the river, local governments and industries, formed a consortium in 2000. Members made a financial commitment to maintaining the Lock and Dam. The consortium members established a fund of $1 million to operate the Lock and Dam once it was rehabilitated. North Augusta assumed responsibility for operation, once the dam was rehabilitated.

Dr. Carl cited increasing storage capacity in Lake Thurmond as the way to control flooding. To my knowledge, this never has been seriously discussed. I sincerely doubt the Georgia Ports Authority would be willing to pay for raising the top of the Thurmond Dam so that installing a rock weir does not increase flooding in North Augusta. Moreover, Thurmond Dam cannot in any way negate the impact of water entering the Savannah River from the large Stevens Creek tributary.

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Let there be no mistake: The Savannah Harbor Expansion Project is the driving force to have this issue resolved. The Georgia Ports Authority will destroy spawning habitat for the shortnose sturgeon and other fish as it dredges to deepen the Savannah Harbor. That damage has to be mitigated before dredging can begin.

A Fishery Interagency Coordination Team looked for ways that habitats within the harbor could be improved for shortnose sturgeon, one of the species whose spawning habitat will be destroyed. None were found. As a result, that team, the ports authority and the Corps created a plan whose purpose was to allow these fish access to historic breeding grounds, upstream of the Lock and Dam.

Proposed options to permit the fish to migrate to the spawning grounds were evaluated in the Environmental Impact Statement for the harbor expansion. Cost estimates were a part of that evaluation. The Corps considered those estimates preliminary. Despite requests for updated cost estimates for the various options, the Corps has thus far chosen not to make them public.

North Augusta residents are the ones being placed at risk to enable the Savannah Harbor expansion. Why are the Corps and the Georgia Ports Authority focused only on creating a rock weir across the Savannah River, nearly in our front yard, to solve their problem? The Corps’ knows from multiple analyses already on its shelves the negatives for that option. North Augusta is strongly opposed to that option.

What is the answer?

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Fortunately there is a commonsense solution. Tom Robertson, president of Cranston Engineering Group, P.C., has studied the Savannah River and the Lock and Dam for years. He is an expert who understands this entire issue. Tom proposes a solution that is workable, reasonable and likely to cost less than other options.

The solution addresses all risks for the vital interests – economic, recreational, human health, safety and environmental – of the Middle Savannah River communities and Augusta-area businesses and industries. The solution also serves the goals of the harbor expansion project.

The solution is simple and straightforward: Construct a modest-sized fish bypass, similar to one proposed in 2012, with simultaneous repair of the Lock and Dam. The pool that has existed for 80 years between North Augusta and Augusta doesn’t change; flood risks don’t increase; the shortnose sturgeon can access historic spawning grounds; and harbor dredging can proceed.

And, importantly, this plan appears to cost the least of all the alternatives. This solution is already environmentally vetted, and is virtually shovel-ready – the quickest to implement.

We simply cannot afford to let a project over 100 miles away dictate to our community solutions to issues on a river that is vitally important to our economy and way of life.

That’s the plan. Now’s the time. Let’s get started.

 

The writer is mayor of North Augusta, S.C.

 

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