Insiders report a pretty solid cross-section of Augusta-area residents are dismayed with the lock and dam situation. A vocal minority seems to have found a boogeyman: the Savannah Riverkeeper.
Suspicion surrounds a Settlement Agreement the Savannah Riverkeeper, Tonya Bonitatibus, signed in 2013 in which she and her Co-Plaintiffs gave the go ahead to the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project (SHEP).
In exchange, the Riverkeeper received a seat on a newly-created Board that is slated to be seeded with $12.5 million dollars for environmental initiatives.
“Georgia Port Authority will contribute Twelve Million Five Hundred Thousand Dollars ($12,500,000) to be used solely and exclusively for environmental and conservation projects in the Savannah River Basin to the Savannah River Restoration Board in increments of One Million Forty-One Thousand, Six Hundred Sixty-Six Dollars and Sixty-Seven Cents ($1,041,666.67), with the first payment commencing sixty (60) days following initiation of Inner Harbor Channel Dredging and no earlier than July 1, 2014, and the remaining payments to be paid on the annual anniversary date of the initial payment for the following eleven (11) years”
Helping or “encouraging” area stakeholders to oppose any of SHEP’s plans in Savannah or Augusta could leave the Riverkeeper open to a breach of contract claim.
(The Conservation Groups covenant that they will not assist, encourage, support, or otherwise aid a third party in pursuing any action or claim against the Defendants relating to the construction of the SHEP).
The whopping $1,041,666.67 annual installments due to the Riverkeeper and the new Board will cease if dredging in the Savannah Harbor stops for any reason at all (including any unlikely stoppages that could result from the coming negotiations between the Corps of Engineers and area stakeholders).
(Riverkeepers are 501c(3) non-profit organization funded by individuals and foundations. A large part of what they do is fundraise to support themselves.)
“GPA’s obligations under this Agreement will be suspended if (a) the Project is stayed or enjoined, (b) the State Approvals are revoked, rescinded, modified or stayed, or (c) after the initiation of Inner Harbor Channel Dredging, Inner Harbor Channel Dredging is suspended or ceased for any reason.”
The Riverkeeper and Co-Plaintiffs also extracted a guarantee that the Corps of Engineers would pursue the deauthorization of the “Savannah River navigation channel below Augusta project and above the Houlihan Bridge.”
(GPA and the Commission agree to make their best efforts in good faith to obtain letters from the Governors of South Carolina and Georgia requesting that the Corps conduct a section 216 study to examine the feasibility of deauthorization of the Savannah River navigation channel below Augusta project and above the Houlihan Bridge … The Savannah District of the Corps will seek funding, after it receives a letter from a willing nonfederal sponsor, to conduct the Deauthorization Study. (the “Deauthorization Study”).
Insiders speculate the project targeted for deauthorization here is the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam (NSBL&D) and that “Houlihan Bridge” and other descriptors were substituted for the words “New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam” to conceal the Parties’ intentions from interested area stakeholders.
The Savannah Corps lists a project called “Savannah River Below Augusta.” This project spans the river between Augusta and the Houlihan Bridge. The NSBL&D is a Modification of this project.
Within six months of the 2013 Settlement the Savannah Corps sought and received an appropriation to conduct a Deauthorization Study at NSBL&D.
No record was found that indicates the Savannah Corps attempted to deauthorize any project other than the NSBLD in the months following the 2013 Settlement.
Within a year the NSBL&D was put on the fast track to deauthorization when it was shut down indefinitely due to “structural” issues. A couple months after that a Review Plan for a Deauthorization Study was in place.
The facility was of course finally deauthorized—and potentially replaced with the dreaded Alt. 2-6d Nature Like Fishway with Floodplain Bench—in the 2016 WIIN Act. The Riverkeeper’s work in Washington, D.C. to get this amendment passed is well-known.
Deauthorization is a sledgehammer. Area stakeholders officially lost control of this situation when it was accomplished.
Various groups have been trying to deauthorize the NSBL&D for decades. Recall that deauthorization was attempted in the late 1990’s and the late U.S. Representative Charlie Norwood had to come through with legislation to end it.
That legislation also prohibited the use of the NSBL&D as mitigation for Savannah and authorized the rehabilitation of the structure at full federal expense. In fact these protections and upgrades are precisely what had to be “deauthorized.”
There could be a perfectly reasonable explanation for the “Houlihan Bridge” language. If so, let’s hear it; because the optics are bad. Then again, it could very well be the case that the Riverkeeper doesn’t know what she signed in 2013.
Then again, it could very well be the case that the Riverkeeper doesn’t know what she signed in 2013.
A potential ignorance defense could be undercut somewhat, however, by the fact the Riverkeeper is undeniably sounding an awful lot like a Corps spokesman these days. It’s hard to see any daylight between the two organizations.
Listening to Bonitatibusin the news you would think the words “caretaker” and “original authorized purpose” were somehow important. You would think the 2016 WIIN Act was a good idea because “the pool is protected for the first time ever.” You would think the NSBL&D could collapse at any minute (Bonitatibus told commissioners at the forum no fewer than five times in a 25 minute span the NSBL&D was “falling in”). Listening to her you would think the Cape Fear fish Passage is effective.
You would think the only thing to be done right now is to submit a comment. This is the music that has apparently rocked local elected officials to sleep for the last couple years.
But the fact is “caretaker” and “original authorized purpose” are nothing more than Corps terms of art, the pool lost its protection with the WIIN Act, the NSBL&D is in absolutely no danger of “falling in”. Also, this idea that “commenting” is the only course of action is torn straight from the Corps hymnbook.
No surprise this is the Riverkeeper’s stock recommendation these days given the fact she appears to be contractually prohibited from “encouraging” anything other than that by the language of the 2013 Settlement.
But there she is on the news every night running neck and neck with Corps Spokesman Russell Wicke in a 30-day Comment Period race to see who can say the word “comment” one million times the fastest.
Here’s the bottom line: It’s time folks in the Augusta area—elected and otherwise—saw Bonitatibus with their eyes wide open.
The Riverkeeper is not here to help. She works for the River. She would be a terrible Riverkeeper if she didn’t want the NSBL&D removed and there’s a very real question as to whether the 2013 Settlement was used to bring about its shut down and deauthorization.
She is contractually prohibited from helping or even encouraging anyone to oppose SHEP and its Augusta mitigation site.
The vocal minority is onto something in one regard: where the Savannah River is involved, the Augusta area should stop outsourcing its thinking to the Savannah Riverkeeper.