Exactly 20 years ago this week, the Metro Spirit’s Brian Neill’s cover story drew attention to Augusta’s threatened New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam.
How the city has been caught flat footed two decades later is anyone’s guess.
Originally published December 16, 1999.
Most people who support maintaining the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam, thus preserving the integrity and water level of the river flowing past our fair city, might surprise you with their immediate request: Drain it.
Not for good. Just long enough for the image to set in.
“I hope everybody in Augusta goes down there and looks at it when they drain the river down so we can see what we’ve got for a river on our Riverwalk,” said Congressman Charlie Norwood (R-10th District). “I don’t know what it’s going to do either, but we ought to take a look at that because if we don’t have a dam there we may not like what it does to our river.”
Norwood, referring to a scheduled test by the US Army Corps of Engineers to lower the river level to simulate the closing of the dam, is not alone in his concerns.
While the issue still is being studied, the Corps current position is that the Lock and Dam no longer serves its original purpose of facilitating river traffic and should be decommissioned or turned over to a new owner.
As a unique case study, and possibly a selling point, the Corps has proposed opening the gates to the dam temporarily to examine what exactly will happen if the facility is decommissioned.
The draw-down was scheduled for this month, but was postponed.
Rick Toole, secretary-treasurer of the Augusta Port Authority, said the drawdown is now scheduled to begin on January 15th and conclude on January 22. The river would be at its lowest point on January 17th.
Keeping the Lock and Dam in operation, experts say, is crucial to maintaining the depth and shore levels of the portion of the Savannah River that passes Augusta. With the dam gates closed, water backs up and forms the pool that flows past the Riverwalk. If the gates are left open, as they would be if the structure were decommissioned, the water level would initially drop six feet and recede 100 feet or more from the shoreline.
Whether water levels would stabilize and return to normal or remain lowered is anyone’s guess. The Corps has informed state and local officials in the two-state area that prepping the Lock and Dam for take over by another entity would cost between $5 million and $10 million dollars. Then there would be a yet undetermined annual maintenance cost associated with the structure.
So far no one is rushing forward to pick up the tab.
While the issue of the Lock and Dam seems on the surface to be specific to Augusta, its neighbor across the river in South Carolina also has much at stake. In addition to installing a golf course near the river within the past year-and-a-half, North Augusta recently embarked on a plan which will span a decade or more and capitalize on the undeveloped banks of the Savannah River.
The plan would include a Hotel and Convention Center in various retail outlets, all located near the river. “When they draw the river down, and if it’s as bad as it’s supposed to be, than the ox will have fallen in the ditch, so to speak,” said North Augusta mayor Lark Jones.
But aside from the aesthetics, the river plays a much more important role to North Augusta- it is the city’s main water source.
North Augusta is 3 months into a 12 to 18-month project to increase its water treatment plants capacity from 8 million to 14 million gallons per day. Officials decided to go ahead and sink another $200,000 into the project to dredge a deeper reservoir pool in the Savannah River and extend intake piping just in case water levels dipped.
“So in a worst-case scenario we think we would still have our water source covered,” Jones said. Augusta Mayor Bob Young said the issue of who will come to the Lock and Dam’s rescue is still up in the air. “I’ve gotten a lot of correspondence on this thing,” Young said. “There are all kinds of ideas floating around. But as far as the city is concerned, this is still a federal issue. I can assure you that we’re just in no financial shape right now to say ‘okay give it to us,’ ” Young said.
Young said he spoke with a court official and asked that the 40-day comment period be extended to 60 days to accommodate the holidays. “I suggested to him that if the Corps didn’t have a comment, the mayor would,” Young said.
Although the area that would possibly be affected is in a floodplain and perceived by many as serving no other purpose than being a river, Young said he thinks some good can still come from a worst-case scenario.
“They may open up some other opportunity with a small channel for bike paths and picnic areas,” Young said.
“Let’s not make a blanket statement and say that change is bad.”
Some have hinted that local Industries should pick up some of the financial slack, because many of them use water from the Savannah River in their manufacturing processes. But the idea doesn’t wash with Pete Brody. Brodie, former city manager of Augusta prior to consolidation and now manager of human resources with PC Nitrogen, said the Lock and Dam is not a concern of the private sector.
“Why would industry be involved in funding a public entity?” Brodie asked. “The width the river exists at here has been here for many years and was part of that natural resource that led a lot of industry along the river to locate here in the first place.”
While local Industries have announced that special equipment will be needed during the drawdown test to keep water flowing in their plants, Brodie said equipment can be installed to meet manufacturing needs in the event the river is lowered permanently.
“We don’t have to have a Lock and Dam to operate here,” Brodie said. “That (installing permanent water intake equipment) would probably be a substantial investment, but it would be a one-time investment.”
Jim Parker, spokesman for the Corps, said an initial report on the Lock and Dam situation will be released in the next few weeks. He would not comment on any points contained in the report.
He also stressed that Congress, not the Corps, would have the final say in the future of the Lock and Dam. We (the Corps) don’t decommission. We don’t deauthorize,” Parker said.
“That something that Congress does.”
Parker said the Corps would seal carry the facility on its inventory and conduct “minimal maintenance” until otherwise instructed by Congress.
“People have a feeling that when the Corps issues its final report and says it should be decommissioned, we’re going to pull the gates and walk away from it,” Parker said.
“That’s not the case.”