No money on way for decaying dam

One of the Savannah River's oldest dams continues to decay as the costs to repair it rise steadily -- with no guaranteed funding in sight.

New Savannah Bluff Lock & Dam was recommended for demolition in 2000 after the Army Corps of Engineers concluded it no longer served commercial navigation -- the purpose for which it was built in 1937.

Industries and municipalities that depend on the dam's upstream pool for drinking water and industrial uses didn't want the concrete dam removed. They agreed to assume ownership of the federal project if Congress would finance the repairs.

That was eight years ago, when repairs were estimated at $5.3 million. The estimate has since risen to about $22 million in 2005.

Corps spokesman Billy Birdwell, noting no repair funds were authorized in fiscal 2008 -- or in the fiscal 2009 civil works budget unveiled earlier this month -- said the estimate will probably have to be calculated yet again.

"The costs will have to be updated and it hasn't been in several years," Mr. Birdwell said. "Before we can transfer it we have to fix it, and for us to fix it we'll need a new repair estimate."

The transfer would shift ownership of the project to Aiken County and North Augusta, with Augusta chipping in for a portion of the maintenance.

Mr. Birdwell said one reason costs have risen was the addition of a proposed fish passage structure to allow migratory species such as sturgeon, American shad and striped bass to swim upriver to spawn.

The president's fiscal year 2009 Civil Works budget, released Feb. 4 contains $61,021,000 for projects, studies and operations and maintenance in the Savannah District that includes Augusta.

No funds were earmarked for New Savannah Bluff, Mr. Birdwell said.

"Every year, we ask for money, and we make our case for our projects, and ultimately it's up to the president and Congress."

Augusta officials have voiced concerns in past years that if Congress never funds the repairs, the dam could become a safety hazard and the corps might end up demolishing it anyway.

Such a decommissioning would involve removing the dam's spillway gates, permanently lowering river levels 5 to 12 feet. Residents and industries say they would be inconvenienced by lower water levels.

Reach Rob Pavey at 868-1222, ext. 119 or rob.pavey@augustachronicle.com.

TIMELINE

1998: Congress agrees to spend $1.1 million for a study to determine whether the lock and dam should be repaired or demolished.

1999: The Corps of Engineers recommends the structure be demolished and removed, at a cost of $5 million. Local governments opposethe idea and ask to assume ownership if the corps would finance repairs.

2000: Repair costs estimated at $5.3 million in a bill authorizing transfer to local governments.

2001: Repair costs recalculated at $6.8 million and $800,000 was appropriated for construction surveys.

2002: The corps, citing federal law that allows it to pay for 60 percent of the repair costs, offers to pay $4 million if local governments would finance the rest. Local governments refuse and the corps agrees to pay 100 percent pending availability of funds from Congress.

2003: Repair costs recalculated at $13.2 million, and a plan to create a fish ladder added $4.8 million more, bringing the estimate to $18 million.

2005: Total costs recalculated at $22 million, but no funding was approved by Congress.

2008: Corps officials say funds for a new study may be needed to calculate new repair estimates.