It all comes down to fish and money.
The fish - especially American shad and striped bass - need an opportunity to move up and down the Savannah River to spawn.
The city of Augusta, as part of its quest to relicense its 161-year-old industrial canal, must provide that access, according to a draft proposal issued by federal regulators.
The price tag for adding a mandatory upstream fish passage device to Augusta's Diversion Dam at the canal headgates would be about $736,000, plus annual expenses of $10,000. A downstream system would be costlier, with estimates as high as $6.4 million.
The edict by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission means the Augusta Utilities Department, which operates the canal as part of the city's drinking water system, will almost certainly have to install some sort of fish passage device as a condition of relicensing.
"We think there is an established need to pass fish beyond the diversion dam," said biologist Gerrit Jobsis of American Rivers, a conservation group monitoring the negotiations between Augusta and the regulatory commission.
Studies indicate 75,000 to 110,000 American shad move upstream from New Savannah Bluff Lock & Dam near Augusta Regional Airport each year, offering the important migratory fish an opportunity to move even farther upstream if they can get past the Diversion Dam in Columbia County, he said.
The current plan, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and other resource agencies, is to establish a vertical fish ladder on the South Carolina side of the dam. The structure would enable fish to move upstream past the dam into the waters below Stevens Creek Dam about a mile upstream.
Stevens Creek, owned by S.C. Electric & Gas Co., renewed its license with the regulatory commission in the 1990s and agreed - at that time - to add fish passage devices to its dam if Augusta's Diversion Dam was updated with similar improvements. Mr. Jobsis said Augusta's fulfilment of the requirement could add 14 miles of river habitat.
Augusta's lawyers have filed an appeal of the stipulation for fish passage devices, and environmental groups, including American Rivers and the Coastal Conservation League, are opposing any changes. The U.S. Interior Department also has filed briefs supporting the requirement for mandatory fish passage.
"Augusta is disputing the need for it at this time," said Patrick Moore, a water quality associate with the Coastal Conservation League. "The fishway prescriptions are backed by sound science and a comprehensive fisheries restoration plan. It is in the best interests of the citizens of both South Carolina and Georgia to put this fishway in."
Although discussions have involved placing a fishway on the Georgia side of the dam near the canal headgates, the historic setting within the Augusta Canal National Heritage Area leaves little opportunity for such construction.
"If it were on the Georgia side, it could have some impact on the towpath and users of the area," said Canal Authority Director Dayton Sherrouse. "There's a very narrow distance between the canal and river in that area and there wouldn't be much room for anything to be built."
Ed Bettross, a state fisheries biologist who represents Georgia's Department of Natural Resources in the relicensing issue, said there is ample room for an effective fish passage device on the undeveloped South Carolina side.
Reach Rob Pavey at 868-1222, ext. 119, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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