WASHINGTON - Congress gave final approval Tuesday to a study expected to culminate in removal of a major impediment blocking boat traffic along the Savannah River.
A $100,000 study of the feasibility of transferring ownership of the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam from the federal government to the city of Augusta is part of a $500,000 allocation for water projects in the Augusta area.
The spending bill, approved overwhelmingly in the House and unanimously by the Senate, also contributed $300,000 toward a comprehensive study of economic, health and safety issues relating to the Savannah River basin and $100,000 for flood-control studies in Richmond County.
The 60-year-old lock downstream from the city was closed two years ago as a safety precaution after inspectors discovered that its foundations were deteriorating. Since then, boats have been unable to move between Augusta and the lower Savannah River.
"It destroys 25 years of trying to revitalize downtown Augusta," said John Stone, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., who pushed for the money. "With the rapids just north of the city, and the lock eight miles downstream, what you've got is a lake eight miles long and a quarter-mile wide."
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has managed the 52-acre site for the federal government. But the corps is anxious to rid itself of that responsibility because the lock - even when functional - no longer is needed for its original role, corps spokesman Jim Parker said.
"The authorized purpose for that structure is commercial navigation," he said. "There hasn't been commercial navigation up that far for 15 to 20 years."
But Augusta Mayor Larry Sconyers said reopening the lock could have commercial value. Opening the river to barge traffic could help attract businesses that need an outlet to the Atlantic Ocean through Savannah, Ga., he said.
Augusta city officials already have put $500,000 toward repairing the lock, with the corps contributing another $1 million. Corps officials believe the repairs will take four to five months, once a contract has been awarded, but they won't know for certain until the work begins, Mr. Parker said.
"When we drain the lock, we'll have a better idea of the extent of the damage," he said.
The feasibility study, a legal requirement before any ownership transfer, is expected to take two years.
The $500,000 allocation for the three studies represents a restoration of Dr. Norwood's original request, Mr. Stone said. The House version of the bill had called for $100,000 for each project, while the Senate had authorized $300,000 for the comprehensive study and nothing for either the lock or flood-control studies.