The Army Corps of Engineers is planning to tamper with water levels in the Savannah River again this spring.
But unlike the now-famous "experimental drawdown" of January 2000, this year's adjustments will be much more subtle - and for a good cause.
After an extended meeting last week involving Mayor Bob Young and biologists from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and state resource agencies, a solution was forged that participants say they hope will resolve a serious dilemma.
The Corps decided last month that the aging lock gates at New Savannah Bluff Dam were unsafe to open and close - at least during normal river flows.
Usually, the gates are opened repeatedly from late March to June to enable migrating American Shad to reach spawning grounds upstream. Keeping the gates closed would jeopardize already dwindling shad populations in the river.
"Shad are seasonal visitors to our waters, spending most of their lives in the ocean but returning each spring to the river where they were born to spawn," said South Carolina fisheries biologist Doug Cooke.
The agencies - working with the National Marine Fisheries Service - forged a plan that will allow the Corps to reduce flows in the Savannah River for one day each week.
The flow reduction, which would lower the river one to two feet on Mondays and part of each Tuesday, would reduce pressure on the lock gates and walls to a level deemed safe for the structure's operation.
"We're really thrilled," said U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist Steve Gilbert. "We were facing a shad season with no solution for how to get them through this time. We're actually thrilled with the fact that all these parties came together to get this accomplished this year."
The current plan is to begin opening and closing the lock from 8 a.m. through sunset each Monday and several more times each Tuesday morning.
The river's flow would be manipulated by adjusting releases from Thurmond Dam and by coordinating the flow adjustments with the Stevens Creek Dam in Columbia County, owned by S.C. Electric & Gas Company.
The lockings could start as early as this week and will continue through May 21 - near the end of the annual shad migration.
The project spells both good news and bad news for anglers, but mostly good news.
During operation of the lock on Mondays and part of Tuesdays, the outer lock wall will be closed to fishing. Although it may cause slight inconvenience to anglers, there are no lock openings the rest of the week.
The good news is - in the absence of any lockings the rest of the week - there should be plenty of shad congregated at the base of the dam to entertain those who love to fish for them.
In the meantime, researchers from Clemson University will be at the lock this spring to study these unusual fish, which spend four years at sea and travel as far as Nova Scotia before returning to the Augusta area to spawn.
"We will be using state of the art transmitters to track these fish to monitor their movements," said Mike Bailey, a Clemson graduate student. "Our data will be useful for developing a permanent fish passage facility."
The Corps last year proposed dismantling the lock and dam because it no longer served commercial navigation - the purpose for which it was built.
Since then, local governments on both sides of the river have agreed to assume ownership and operation of the structure, provided Congress is willing to finance $6.8 million in renovations.
Those funds could be appropriated sometime in the next few years along with additional monies to finance a permanent fish passage structure that will enable shad and other anadromous fish to swim upstream.
Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 119.
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