Removal of local dam debated

A decade ago, the Army Corps of Engineers concluded Augusta's New Savannah Bluff Lock & Dam was obsolete and dangerously dilapidated and should be removed.

But it wasn't removed.

Although the concrete structure no longer supported commercial shipping -- the purpose for which it was built in 1937 -- local governments wanted it left intact.

Efforts to save the dam -- and its 13-mile pool of water tapped by industries and cities -- yielded a congressional decree that it be repaired and turned over to local municipalities to maintain.

Since that authorization eight years ago, no money has been allocated for repairs, and environmental groups are renewing hopes the structure can be demolished.

"We haven't pushed it, but we would like to see it taken out," said Frank Carl, the executive director of Savannah Riverkeeper Inc.

He contends the dam is an obstruction to striped bass, American shad and other migratory fish that need to reach ancestral spawning grounds: the shoals above Augusta. Eliminating the weed-choked pool downtown would also improve water quality and aesthetics, he said.

But North Augusta City Administrator Sam Bennett contends it is in everyone's best interest to repair the dam.

"If you look at the way the river looks, and the way it provides water to industrial users, we have built our infrastructure around having the pool in place," he said. "So I don't see removal as an option."

Dr. Carl recalled the corps' well-publicized experimental draw-down of the river in 2000, which was designed to show how the channel would change if the dam were removed.

"That experiment showed an extreme low flow -- a flow that probably wouldn't occur in anyone's lifetime, over 100 years," he said. "In reality, if the dam were gone, the flow would be significantly better than that."

The presence of Thurmond and other dams upstream, he noted, guarantees certain minimum flows in the river, which would protect Augusta from water shortages.

Today more people can appreciate the environmental benefits of removing the dam, he said.

"Immediately after the draw-down experiment, I would have said there is no way the political pressure would allow it to be taken out," Dr. Carl said. "The longer it goes on, I think it becomes more likely it will eventually be dismantled."

Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver believes Congress someday will fund the renovations, but he recognizes the need for a contingency.

"It may very well be time to look at a Plan B, and it would have to be, obviously, on both sides of the river and with both governments working on it," he said. "But to this point there have not been discussions by the local governments with regards to removing the dam."

Augusta's riverfront -- and North Augusta's development plans -- are designed around a full pool in the river that will be supported by funds to renovate New Savannah Bluff.

"But if it looks like the money is never coming through, I would not be opposed to a study to see what would happen," he said. If any decision were made to remove the dam, residents would need a lot of details about what everything would look like, he said. "Aesthetically, a lot of money has been spent on riverfront development. To change the pool would change the aesthetics."

A money matter

North Augusta has established an "enterprise fund" to help maintain the project -- assuming it someday will be repaired and turned over to local interests.

"It's something we are doing with Augusta, Aiken County and local industries," Mr. Bennett said. "Funding in the account will help once we take over the lock and dam maintenance. We have $650,000 in the account right now, and we still anticipate the project will be funded by the corps."

Securing funding involves working with congressional members from both sides of the river.

"We've really tried to engage our delegation so they recognize that this project needs to be brought back to the top of the stack so the corps can secure that federal funding," Mr. Bennett said.

Billy Birdwell, the spokesman for the corps' Savannah district, said Congress authorized the repairs in 2000 but never allocated money.

In 2006, engineering and design funding was approved, and the resulting study concluded renovation would cost $22 million -- far more than the $6.8 million estimated in 2000.

"The price has kept going up, and it will really be up to Congress and local authorities as to how far they will go before they determine it's no longer feasible," Mr. Birdwell said. "We'll request funds, but it will be up to Office of Management and Budget and Congress to decide if the rehab is worth the costs."

A conservation matter

Environmental groups such as American Rivers and The Nature Conservancy, along with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and other government resource agencies, favor removing the dam to restore the Savannah's natural flow and aid fish spawning and migration.

Prescott Brownell, a biologist with the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, said dam removals in other areas have shown benefits.

Removing the dam, he said, would expose polluted mudflats and allow natural currents to cleanse and remove accumulated silt from the channel.

"People have a hard time seeing that right now," he said. "If you drain it, you see old grocery carts and you smell the mud. It's a matter of perception and aesthetics. There's a lot of momentum to do nothing."

Navigability, he said, would be minimally affected.

"You'd be replacing the lake shoreline with a river shoreline," he said. "You'd be able to have people walk down a beach and touch the water instead of looking over a deep bulkhead."

"The way it is now, it's a non-natural situation and a barrier to people as well as a barrier to fish and wildlife," he said. "A natural river is more self-adjusting, and everybody who owns a piece of property would have a more accessible shoreline."

City planners, he noted, are revising a master plan that will guide growth on both sides of the river.

"As the cities begin to look at their best options down the road, they should really consider what it would look like with and without that dam," he said. "The key is to do a careful, long-term analysis."

Reach Rob Pavey at (706) 868-1222, ext. 119, or rob.pavey@augustachronicle.com.

TIMELINE

APRIL 26, 1816: Commercial shipping on the Savannah River is born with the launch of the Enterprise, a steamboat owned by businessman Samuel Howard.

1820 TO THE 1850s: As many as 20 commercial steamers travel the river, departing Augusta almost daily with up to 1,000 bales of cotton.

1850s to 1900: River commerce dwindles as railroads haul more cargo and passengers.

1927: Congress authorizes New Savannah Bluff Lock & Dam.

1937: New Savannah Bluff Lock & Dam is dedicated.

1950s: Oil and timber barges use the lock regularly.

1960s: Commerce dwindles and the use of the lock decreases.

1979: In the absence of commercial traffic, the corps ceases all maintenance on the river channel and the lock and dam.

1986: The corps announces plans to close the lock, but Augusta officials want it kept open and agree to renovate and lease the nearby park.

1997: The lock and dam is closed for $1.5 million in repairs.

1999: The lock reopens but is closed months later for more repairs.

2000: A federal study recommends the lock be dismantled and removed, and an experimental draw-down imitating a low-flow 100-year drought is conducted to illustrate how the river might look.

2001: Local governments agree to assume ownership of the project if Congress would finance repairs, estimated at that time to cost $6.8 million, compared with $5.3 million for demolition.

2005: Complete renovations are re-estimated at $22 million, which includes a fish passage. Local governments insist it be repaired at federal expense before they take title.

2006: The corps receives $1.19 million in planning and engineering funds for the renovations but no construction money.

2007: The corps concludes a new study will be needed to recalculate the rising costs.

2008: Congress unveils its fiscal 2009 Civil Works budget with $61 million for the Savannah District that includes Augusta, but -- for the eighth consecutive year -- there is no construction money for New Savannah Bluff.