Three area governments and a South Carolina utility are in the final stages of an agreement under which the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam could be transferred to local ownership - and eventually repaired.
However, the negotiations between Augusta, North Augusta, Aiken County and the South Carolina Electric & Gas Co. have some wrinkles to be ironed out. And a Senate bill authorizing the transfer has hurdles to clear.
"We're very confident that something will be worked out, although it could take some time," North Augusta City Administrator Charles Martin said.
Last year, the Army Corps of Engineers recommended the 63-year-old dam be dismantled because it needed repairs and no longer served commercial shipping - the purpose for which it was built in 1937.
The recommendation drew criticism from area governments and industries that rely on the dam's pool to provide consistent river levels along Augusta's and North Augusta's shorelines.
At the time, no local government was willing to adopt the dam because it needed extensive renovations estimated at $6.8 million. The estimate has risen to $12 million because of the need for a fish passage structure enabling migratory species such as American shad to move upstream to spawn.
Aiken County and North Augusta indicated a willingness to adopt the dam, but only if it was repaired at no cost to those governments. Under the plan, the two governments would own the dam, and SCE&G would maintain and operate the project.
In recent months, the city of Augusta - which initially declined to participate as a cost-sharing sponsor - changed its tune and became involved.
Mayor Bob Young said Augusta officials verbally agreed to become a sponsor in a pending memorandum of agreement between the stakeholders. Under the proposed agreement, Augusta would share in the operational costs of the lock and dam, but ownership would rest with Aiken County and North Augusta.
The reason, Mr. Young said, is that SCE&G - a South Carolina utility - did not want to operate a project owned by a Georgia city.
Mr. Young added, however, that Augusta wants to retain control of Lock and Dam Park, a 50-acre recreation site on the Georgia side of the dam.
"We want to write into our version of the agreement that we get the park, either under a long-term lease or just deeded to us at turnover," he said.
North Augusta and Aiken County officials aren't sure that's the best course of action, however.
"In theory, that sounds very logical," Mr. Martin said. "Obviously, none of us wants to be operating a park on the Georgia side of the facility. But at the same time, you're looking at a tremendous responsibility - and unknown liabilities - coming to the local sponsors when that facility is transferred. With the transfer comes a tremendous asset - that 50 acres over there."
Although Augusta wants a lease or fee-simple title to the site, other alternatives are being explored, Mr. Martin said.
"I can't get into the details yet, but we feel like there is a workable solution, and we are discussing this."
Whether the governments can agree on a plan, Congress still must approve the transfer of the site from the federal government to the new owners.
U.S. Sen. Paul Coverdell, who died earlier this year, had planned a Senate bill to authorize the transfer - and to compel the federal government to finance the $6.8 million in repairs.
The bill was introduced recently as a "manager's amendment" to the Water Resources Development Act, said Alex Albert, legislative director to U.S. Sen. Zell Miller, who was appointed to fill the remainder of Mr. Coverdell's term.
The objective, Mr. Albert added, is to get federal approval of the transfer of the property - and funding could be worked out next year.
"Getting it done would put more pressure on local governments to get together on an agreement everybody can sign off on," he said. "The appropriators are very specific that they want to see an agreement in place they can sign off on."
Mr. Albert pointed out that, even if funding isn't secured this year, no one is going to demolish the dam.
"One thing the community should know is, regardless of what the Corps says, the Corps has no authority over the ultimate say-so on this project," he said. "The final call is up to Congress."
New Savannah Bluff Lock & Dam developments:
Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 119, or email@example.com.