ATLANTA -- The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should review environmental effects of permanently closing Augusta's New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam before taking action, Georgia's top environmental official said Monday.
"That is the very least that ought to be done," Georgia Natural Resources Commissioner Lonice Barrett told a delegation of Augusta officials during a meeting at his office.
The delegation, led by Mayor Bob Young and City Administrator Randy Oliver, traveled to Atlanta in the wake of last week's test drawdown of the Savannah River by the Corps of Engineers.
The drawdown was designed to simulate what would happen if the 63-year-old Savannah River dam were taken out of service and 15 miles of river were restored to its original flow.
The Corps is recommending that Congress decommission the dam -- because it no longer serves a commercial purpose -- unless some other government entity along the river will take responsibility for its repair, operation and maintenance.
A biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says restoring the river to its original free-flowing state would improve fishing and allow migratory species like striped bass to travel farther upstream.
But on Monday, Mr. Oliver said other experts have predicted decommissioning the dam would harm the environment.
"We've had people contact us about changing bird migratory patterns," Mr. Oliver said. "We've also had some people indicate the wetlands fell 6 inches when the river drawdown occurred."
An environmental-impact study should consider issues beyond fish and wildlife, Mr. Barrett said.
"That lock and dam is over 50 years old," he said. "I'm not so sure there aren't some historical-preservation issues in play."
But the commissioner was less receptive to Mr. Young's suggestion that the state try to work out an agreement with South Carolina officials to share operation and future maintenance of the dam if the Corps agrees to make needed repairs.
A study last month estimated the price for those repairs at $7 million.
"I don't want to take on the operation of that lock and dam," Mr. Barrett said.
Mr. Young reiterated his position that Augusta city officials also are in no position to take over the dam.
"We just can't afford to take on another major project on the river," he said.
A full-blown environmental-impact review would take the Corps 18 to 24 months and could cost millions, Mr. Oliver said.
ReachDave Williams at (404) 589-8424 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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