Originally created 07/01/00

Officials seek lock, dam funds



Efforts to secure $6.8 million to renovate New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam haven't materialized in Washington so far.

Funding for such projects usually is attached to the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act, which was unveiled earlier this week with no appropriation for New Savannah Bluff.

"The only ones earmarked in there are specific projects with 50/50 cost-shares, and they're mostly out West," said John Stone, press secretary for Rep. Charlie Norwood.

He was unsure why there was no appropriation for New Savannah Bluff.

"It appears we didn't get authorization for the $6.8 million in the House bill," he said. "But we're working to get it on a Senate bill contingent upon an agreement reached for Aiken and North Augusta to take it over."

The lock and dam needs $6.8 million in repairs, which its owner - the Army Corps of Engineers - says must be cost-shared with local governments willing to assume responsibility for the project.

Earlier this year, Aiken County and North Augusta indicated a willingness to adopt the 63-year-old dam, but only if it would be repaired first at no cost to those governments.

Last winter, the Corps recommended the structure be dismantled because it needed repairs and no longer served commercial shipping - the purpose for which it was built in 1937.

At that time, no local government was willing to take it over and the Corps recommended it be dismantled, touching off opposition from governments and industries that benefit from the pool of water above the dam.

Mr. Stone said the next step is to work with Sen. Paul Coverdell and other senators to attempt to get the needed funding - without any required local contributions - into a Senate version of the appropriations bill.

"Sen. Coverdell will try to add the $6.8 million on a Senate bill, but it would be contingent upon when North Augusta and Aiken agree to take it over," Mr. Stone said.

North Augusta City Administrator Charles Martin said the city's offer to take over the project remains open.

"Our offer is still on the table," he said. "We would consider becoming the local sponsor if the facilities are brought up to standard and upgraded."

The governments involved have met repeatedly with politicians and area industries to discuss the idea, he said.

"But we've not made any final decisions at this point," he said. "Everything we do is predicated on their getting that funding. If that is done, we would step in. We feel confident, with all the attention it's getting, that something will be put in for it at some point."

The Corps, meanwhile, is on the verge of releasing its final version of the Section 216 decommissioning report in which final recommendations will be made for the project, Corps spokesman Jim Parker said.

A draft version of the report issued last December suggested Congress remove the structure because no local sponsor had come forward. Mr. Parker is unsure whether the final version will be different.

"We do expect to issue it sometime in early July," he said. "But as of this moment, as we speak, we still don't have anyone who's signed on the dotted line."

The Corps, he said, had delayed issuance of the final report because of the possibility of something working out with North Augusta and Aiken. The report will be issued within two weeks.

The Corps, he added, supports keeping the project intact, as many Augustans have requested.

"The draft report was very clear that the benefits exceeded the costs by quite an amount," he said. "So it wasn't a matter of whether it was a marginal project to rehab. It was a matter of the rules we have to work under as a federal agency."

Those rules require the Corps to recommend decommissioning unless a local sponsor can be found to adopt and share rehabilitation costs. Congress, however, can change the rules or make exceptions if it wishes.

"No matter what the recommendation is in the report, it is ultimately Congress' call as to what actually happens," Mr. Parker said.

Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 119.