Debates on flows put fish in focus

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Resolving the dispute over how much water must be released from Thurmond Dam will depend, at least in part, on the breeding habits of one of the planet's oldest fish: the sturgeon.

"What we are doing, in conjunction with The Nature Conservancy, is trying to determine what impact this lower flow is having on the shortnose sturgeon," said Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Billy Birdwell.

Fewer than 2,000 of the federally endangered fish are believed to still inhabit the river and its coastal estuaries, and populations have continued to decline. Studies are under way to determine whether lower river flows will prevent upstream spawning runs.

The Savannah River's annual average flow is about 9,000 cubic feet per second, but the drought last year brought those releases down to 3,600 cubic feet per second under a federally approved drought plan.

In November, the corps made an exception to its plan and further reduced flows -- to a 20-year low of 3,100 cubic feet per second -- in efforts to slow the decline of upstate lakes.

Upstate groups concerned about the low water's effect on real estate sales and the recreation industry have asked that those lower flows be extended indefinitely.

The corps has proposed keeping the lower flows only through the end of February, but even that will depend on the sturgeon studies, Mr. Birdwell said.

"We have authority to take it through the end of January and take it back up to 3,600 at the start of February," he said. "But if we see the impacts on sturgeon are minimal or nonexistent, we will pass that information back to the National Marine Fisheries Service to see if they will allow us to go all the way through February, which was the original request from the states of Georgia and South Carolina."

So far, it remains unclear whether the low flows are affecting sturgeon, said Amanda Meadows, the Savannah River program director for The Nature Conservancy.

She and other scientists are using ultrasonic transmitters placed on coastal sturgeon to determine when they swim upstream to spawn, and in what numbers.

"Historically, we think they like to have as much water as possible for spawning," Dr. Meadows said. "Most of their historic spawning grounds are on the other (upstream) side of the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam, but we think they may be using lesser quality gravel bars below the lock and dam."

Though previous studies show many sturgeon spawn in March and April, they also detected spawning activity as early as February, she said.

"We've moved a bunch of receivers upstream, and we're waiting to see where the fish go," she said.

The data gathered in the current studies will be shared -- without formal recommendations -- with resource agencies.

The lakes have risen several feet from heavy rains in December and January, but long-range forecasts still call for waters to recede throughout the summer and fall.

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

STURGEON FACTS

- Two sturgeon species inhabit the Savannah River: the federally endangered shortnose, which can weigh 30 pounds or more, and the federally protected Atlantic sturgeon, which can reach 8 feet in length and weigh 300 pounds or more.

- Both species are categorized as "living fossils" and have survived almost unchanged for more than 220 million years. They are also important "indicator species" that help document the quality of a given habitat.

- Sturgeon swim upriver to spawn and require fast-flowing water and rocky shoals. Their sticky roe, known as caviar, clings to the rocks in spawning grounds until the eggs hatch. Juvenile sturgeon remain in the shoals until they are large enough to swim downstream to coastal estuaries.

- Damming of rivers and the creation of reservoirs have prevented upstream migration and eliminated spawning grounds, contributing to their decline.

- In the Savannah River, sturgeon are blocked by New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam below Augusta but are believed to use gravel beds downstream for limited spawning. Above the city, just 4 percent of the shoals where they once spawned remains intact.

Source: National Marine Fisheries Service, The Nature Conservancy

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dashiel
176
Points
dashiel 01/18/09 - 07:45 am
0
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Before the Savannah River was

Before the Savannah River was dammed (& damned) The Atlantic (or a similar) Sturgeon spawned here as late as the early 20th century. Now if even a shortnose makes it this far upstream, it deserves a medal. Sturgeons have been migrating up our river since the CSRA was beachfront. In our ignorance/indifference we have almost succeeded in eliminating this ancient (not small or obscure) species. Leave it to the Corps of Engineers to finish the job completely.

TrukinRanger
1748
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TrukinRanger 01/18/09 - 08:24 am
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yup yup
Unpublished

yup yup

Riverman1
94280
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Riverman1 01/18/09 - 09:17 am
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The flow from the damn is the

The flow from the damn is the lowest in 20 years, yet, the lakes are low. There is really nothing else to do, but wait for more rain. The river is going to suffer with low flows in the spring. The Columbia County and Richmond County treated sewage is put back in the river, plus drinking water is pulled from it for many communities. The SRS, Plant Vogle and various industries require millions of gallons to operate. All this happens before the river flow hits the city of Savannah where the fresh water is necessary for the shrimp and oyster industry, plus their drinking water. Salt water intrusion is a danger of decreased flows there. Many more people depend on the river than the lake which was put there not for recreation, but for flood control. Now let's all pray for more rain.

mooseye
276
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mooseye 01/18/09 - 11:26 am
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Let us not do anything to

Let us not do anything to endanger the real estate value of the landowners property. The same property that was virtually worthless before the damn was constructed. How could we even consider putting an ancient fishes entire existance ahead of someones beautiful waterfront vista? Stand up people, and demand that the river be shut off completely until the waves are lapping back on your shores!

Riverman1
94280
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Riverman1 01/18/09 - 12:20 pm
0
0
Note that the average river

Note that the average river flow is 9,000 cfs. We are down to 3,100 cfs now because of the special ruling in an attempt to fill the lake. However the lake is only in drought stage Trigger Level 2 because the lake level is above 316 ft. At this stage the outflow should be 4,000 cfs. At Level 3 it should be 3,800 cfs. We are currently releasing 3,100 cfs until March. That far exceeds Corps of Engineers Water Management of the Savannah River Basin federal rules. If the entire river is not irrepairably harmed with this flow of 3,100 cfs for this long it will be a miracle.

Fishboy
29
Points
Fishboy 01/18/09 - 12:50 pm
0
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Before the dams were built,

Before the dams were built, the Savannah River periodically had flows much less than 3,100 cfs and no permanent harm was done. Booms and busts are natural. Periods of low flow and drought help remove less hardy species from the gene pool.

Riverman1
94280
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Riverman1 01/18/09 - 02:19 pm
0
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Fishboy, that made me think a

Fishboy, that made me think a little and it is a good point. However, low flows before the dam were more than made up for with high flows later much greater than maxium release now. The total flow for the year would be much greater than it is currently. A few years ago the Corp tried to recreate the excessive flow periods by releasing extra water about once a week. In other words, the periods of low flow were compensated by flow well in excess of 9,000 cfs as used to occur naturally before the dam. The salinity in Savannah Harbor has been steadily increasing, endangering their fresh drinking water, shrimp, oyster and crab industries. There is a three year study of the effects of the flow on the river that should be finished soon. That will be interesting and will support higher flows, I believe.

iletuknow
8
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iletuknow 01/18/09 - 02:44 pm
0
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If they survive swimming by

If they survive swimming by Olin Chemical,they will survive anything!

Riverman1
94280
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Riverman1 01/18/09 - 03:01 pm
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Hey Rob....We need to protect

Hey Rob....We need to protect the smallmouth bass that are NOT in the river anyway. Smile.

lakewater1
0
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lakewater1 01/18/09 - 03:05 pm
0
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We are in a record drought in

We are in a record drought in the upper basin. Go look. That means that there is a whole lot less water. Go look. The Corps is currently releasing 3100cfs from Thurmond/Clarks Hill- that is nearly 2 Billion gallons per day down the Savannah. At 3100cfs, Lakes Thurmond and Hartwell are slowly rising. At 3600cfs, they fell significantly in 2007 and 2008, with Hartwell down 6 feet in 2 months last fall, and both are still down about 15 feet.
Go and look at Lake Hartwell, go look at Big Water Marina, or HarborLight South, or Portman Marina, or the Western Carolina Sail Club, and you will see what a mess the current Corps drought management plan has created.
And get by on 2 Billion gallons per day. The Lake Lanier Corps is releasing about 600cfs down the 'Hootch for Atlanta.

Riverman1
94280
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Riverman1 01/18/09 - 03:47 pm
0
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Lakewater, so is your

Lakewater, so is your argument that converting CFS to actual gallons is significant? Honestly, I think the whole thing is that this is a necessary drought management plan. No one is happy. If we had enough water, everyone's dock would be in the water. Either tear the dam down or manage it according to what is best for the river.

lakewater1
0
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lakewater1 01/18/09 - 09:16 pm
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My point is that 2 Billion

My point is that 2 Billion gallons a day is a significant amount of water. It is about 5 times as much as is being let out of Lake Lanier for Atlanta and the 'Hootch.
The current drought management plan that is obviously not working was too little conservation of water that started too late.
The water in the basin needs to be managed for the benefit of the entire basin, not a specific a section of river. We share in its use, and must share in the drought.

Tujeez1
0
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Tujeez1 01/18/09 - 10:43 pm
0
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The lakes have become a

The lakes have become a political burden on the entire state. They generate power when rains are plentiful and flow can be maintained. During this "exceptional" drought they have become a "resource" for demand and debate. The lakes are "reservoirs", THAT means Reserves. If they did not exist, the river would have been a trickle long ago, with periods of flooding when the intermittent rains came. I have seen no data that shows "what" the flow rate "actually" would have been if the lakes did not exist. Surely in this day of complex math and advanced scientific study, someone could come up with a formula to detirmine the "actual" flow rates that we would be seeing in the Savannah River Basin, calculating the rate in relation to the actual rainfall. To mutter the 9,000cfs as a "historical" rate of flow is ludicrous. When there is no rain, there can be no flow. Yes deviants, I am sure that we can concede that the water table of the region would maintain some flow as it declined. But in light of the exceptional drought that we are having, it is safe to conclude that at some point, the rain would be replenishing the depleated water table and there would be periods of "No Flow".

Tujeez1
0
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Tujeez1 01/18/09 - 11:07 pm
0
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Further, it stands to

Further, it stands to reason(for reasonable persons) that all must suffer equally in periods of drought. The cities that draw drinking water from the Basin(to include the lakes) should be given some priority. Those priorities should be calculated based on population and resources. The City of Thomson used to draw its water from privately owned ponds and city owned wells in McDuffie County. Wether they still use those resources I do not know. They paid the private pond owners for the water. Seeing as how they can draw water from the lake for free(most likely) I cannot believe that they(commissioners) would still be "buying the cow when they can get the milk for free". The Government can condemn your property and take it for the greater good, giving you "peanuts" for it. The fact that they did not "take" this resource for the public good reflects the nature of politics. The resource in question was at one time owned by a well known Lawyer. Probably still is. Water management , as demand increases above the available resources, has to be an all inclusive plan. Playing politics with water resources only strains the tax base with useless lawsuits. It's time for widescale desalination.

Tujeez1
0
Points
Tujeez1 01/18/09 - 11:45 pm
0
0
The world (for the most part)

The world (for the most part) digs salt from underground deposits and uses it everywhere. the salinity of the oceans is rising. It HAS to. The salt is being redistributed to the surface and flowing into the ocean from the streams and rivers. If man would derive his salt from the sea water, the salinity could only remain the same. But the salt comes from other sources also. Desalination is the answer to our problems, we just don't want to pay the costs. Oil has been our "easy" option for fuel. One day the oil will run out. What will we "use' then? The planet cannot keep making up the difference in supply and demand. We have to act now if we are going to stay ahead of the problems that are coming. We already see the effects of the strain on the water resources. Arguing over who gets what now only wastes precious time. We have to act. There are no more free rides on this planet. And hugging trees is not the answer. Rational thought and actions must prevail.

savannahwaterman
0
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savannahwaterman 01/23/09 - 09:33 am
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This a very complex situation

This a very complex situation with the flows of the Savannah.

I recommend the following link for those that are interested in the historic flows before the dams and after.

http://cms.ce.gatech.edu/gwri/uploads/proceedings/2003/Hale%20and%20Jack...

How I interpret the the data is that before the dams we had annual periods and events of very high flow (flooding) and the low periods rarely, (and I see never) approach the consistent low flow rate we have now.

We have to look at the big picture when making decisions. I have seen the Corps try to make these decisions with balance but still looking at the overall watershed.

We all wish for more rain so that this is not an issue but during times of drought, unfortunately the Reservoirs (reserves) will be the most visually affected. Life is not fair and it always sucks to be the one "hurt"

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