Just before setting his kayak into the water for an afternoon paddle down the Savannah River, local outdoor enthusiast Andy Colbert said he’s encouraged by the idea that the city might consider developing a whitewater rapids park by the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam.
“I definitely hope it happens because it would really open things up around the lock and dam,” said Colbert, owner of Outdoor Augusta, a local company that provides rentals of a variety of recreational gear such as canoes, kayaks and paddle boards. “I have attended several different whitewater parks in this region, like there is one in Charlotte, N.C., and one in Columbus, Ga., as well. I think it would be great here in Augusta because it would be one more cool activity to do on the river.”
Over the past several years, the popularity of whitewater rapids has surged throughout the country. While some of the most adrenaline-inducing rides down rivers are found out West, many southern towns have become destination cities offering unique whitewater parks of their own.
“It would be great in the future, down the line, to have something like that here in Augusta,” Colbert said. “Because the water around the lock and dam has become really stagnant. The fishing that used to happen down there doesn’t happen anymore because the fish don’t really like to hang out in that type of water. A whitewater park could really get things flowing again and draw more people to the river.”
Here in the Peach State, Columbus has definitely made a name for itself by embracing rafting and kayaking along the Chattahoochee River. In fact, the Chattahoochee Whitewater Park was recently named one of the “Top 12 Greatest Man-Made Adventures on the Planet” by USA Today.
The entire course is said to be the longest, urban whitewater rafting area in the world, consisting of both classic and challenging runs on the same 2.5-mile stretch of river that is operated by a dam-controlled release which occurs daily.
It’s not uncommon for the river to undergo daily fluctuations between 800 cubic feet per second in volume, which is ideal for slower, family-friendly runs down the Chattahoochee River, to 13,000 cubic feet per second in volume, which provides visitors with a wilder, more challenging ride.
With its close proximity to downtown, Columbus’ whitewater park has become a centerpiece of the community and created a booming rafting industry in area.
But success didn’t happen overnight.
Back in 2012, the city of Columbus decided to remove two century-old dams and replace the former structures with a state-of-the-art kayak surf wave just blocks from the downtown area.
And yet, the city has also respected its links to its industrial past.
“Our community has done a heck of a job maintaining the historic character of our downtown,” Richard Bishop, president of Uptown Columbus and manager of the river park recently told Canoe & Kayak Magazine.
Colbert believes Augusta also could offer a whitewater park that could be enjoyed by everyone from a novice to experts on the Savannah River.
“I think for someone to drive all the way up to the Chattooga River or somewhere like for whitewater, they are not going to do that, especially someone who has never done it before,” Colbert said. “They are going to be less likely to go out to some far off destination out in the boonies. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it is beautiful and amazing out there and it’s probably the next step for someone once they’ve had enough experience on the water, but people just starting out would rather go to somewhere like a whitewater park where they can learn.”
Over the years, Colbert said he’s had several customers ask him about the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte.
Since 2006, the USNWC has been offering all-day pass programs, instruction, leadership schools as well as festivals, races and other outdoor events at its whitewater center. Guests of the park can participate in everything from whitewater rafting and kayaking to stand-up paddle boarding.
“Charlotte is a great place just because people new to the sport can really learn alongside top-trained instructors,” Colbert said. “They offer a crash course in safety and techniques and all of that stuff. I don’t know what the projections would be like for something like that in the Augusta area, but I think this community would lend itself to showing more people all of those aspects on the river if there was a whitewater park here.”
Just last month, some members of the Augusta Commission supported a $10,000 proposal to hire the Colorado firm McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group to review and evaluate the area around the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam.
McLaughlin Whitewater has worked with cities and community groups all over the country including Raleigh, N.C., Tulsa, Okla., and Florence, Ala.
In fact, it is the same company that designed the popular rapids park on the Chattahoochee River in Columbus.
However, just as it appeared that the Augusta Commission was ready to move forward with a preliminary look at the potential of a whitewater park by the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam, city leaders decided last week to put the brakes on the proposal for at least the next 60 days.
Both Mayor Pro Tem Mary Davis and Commissioner Sammie Sias insisted the city needed to hear from other interested parties about the future of the lock and dam before bringing McLaughlin Whitewater to town.
“First off, I want to say, I’m not opposed to this issue. Not at all. However, I think we are moving just a little bit fast on it,” Sias said, referring to the whitewater park proposal. “I think there are some questions we need to get answered first.”
Sias said it is imperative for the city of Augusta to fully understand the position of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regarding the lock and dam.
“What is the Corps of Engineers doing? What are their plans?” Sias asked. “There are too many unanswered questions. I just want to simply delay this until we get some answers.”
There’s no doubt there are complicated issues surrounding the lock and dam, which includes not only the federal government, but state and local governments on both sides of the Savannah River.
In December 2016, Congress passed the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, known as the WIIN Act, that directly affected the Savannah River just below Augusta.
Basically, the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam was authorized in the 1930s to facilitate commercial navigation on the Savannah River.
Back then, federal tax dollars were appropriated annually to operate and maintain the project; however, commercial navigation ceased in 1979.
Over time, the integrity of the lock and dam gradually degraded, according to the Corps of Engineers.
“As such, the structure has fallen into a state of disrepair and poses a safety hazard to the public,” wrote Russell Wicke, the corporate communications officer of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District in 2017. “The WIIN Act acknowledges this and formally deauthorizes the navigation structure. Deauthorization is the official classification when the federal government determines a project no longer has a federal requirement for its original purpose — in this case, commercial navigation.”
This deauthorization of the lock and dam superseded former laws that directed the Corps to rehabilitate the historic structure and turn it over to the care of neighboring cities.
But just because the lock and dam in “deauthorized” doesn’t mean it instantly vanishes into thin air.
“By its mere presence, it acts as an impassable barrier to endangered Atlantic sturgeon, shortnose sturgeon and other fish, denying access to their historic spawning grounds,” Wicke stated, explaining thus the construction of a “fish passage” around the lock and dam is required.
The WIIN Act offers two alternatives made possible through deauthorization.
The first alternative is the repair of the lock wall and modification of the structure to allow safe passage to the historic spawning grounds of the Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon and maintain the pool for navigation upstream, water supply and recreational activities, Wicke explained.
The second alternative calls for the removal of the lock and dam after the construction of a water damming rock structure or “weir” is built further upstream. This weir would continue to provide an upstream pool but also permit fish to pass upstream to historic spawning grounds, according to the Corps.
Of course, critics of the plan insist that either alternative is being used as simply mitigation for environmental damage caused by the inner harbor-deepening project in Savannah more than 180 miles downriver from Augusta.
However, the Corps is going ahead with its review of the lock and dam and plans to make a decision on the structure later this year.
“The bottom line is that we intend to propose a cost-effective solution that addresses and balances the needs of all stakeholders, from local public to endangered species – and taxpayers in general,” Wicke stated last year, adding that the Corps takes their responsibility in the matter very seriously. “We have already been consulting with a number of stakeholders to include the Augusta Consortium, the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce, the Augusta mayor and other industrial and municipal partners.
“One thing we can assure is this: The final product will be designed with the interests and safety of the stakeholders in mind, and will also be executed in the most cost-effective, environmentally sustainable manner.”
With that major decision yet to be determined, Mayor Pro Tem Mary Davis said she agreed that the Augusta Commission should hear from all the parties involved, including representatives from elected officials in both states, such as U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson, David Perdue and Lindsey Graham as well as U.S. Rep. Rick Allen.
Davis also wanted to make sure local concerned organizations such as The Savannah Riverkeeper and the “Save the Middle Savannah River” group were invited to the table to discuss the matter.
Finally, she asked City Administrator Janice Allen Jackson if she could set up a workshop to discuss the matter that would include all the parties involved, as well as local civil engineer and city planner, Thomas Robertson Jr. of Cranston Engineering Group.
Robertson has been a longtime advocate of a “fair and safe Savannah Harbor mitigation project” for the lock and dam, Davis said.
“We all want the river in Augusta to be successful,” Davis said. “We just want to make sure we are all playing on the same field.”
Savannah Riverkeeper Executive Director Tonya Bonitatibus, who presented the city with the proposal to bring the McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group to Augusta, told commissioners last week that the Corps of Engineers will announce its decision on the lock and dam by no later than October.
However, she insists that the Corps will not be considering completely repairing or fully funding the restoration of the lock and dam as some locals might be hoping.
“By August, September or October, that’s when the Corps of Engineers is going to come out with their plan. And their plan is going to be an in-river solution because that’s what federal law dictates,” Bonitatibus said. “We have a choice that we are going to have to, at that point and time, make: Either decide that we are going to keep the locks and fight for them or there is going to be a rock dam that goes in the river upstream. One of those two solutions are moving forward.”
But the reality is, the locks have been closed for years because they pose a safety hazard to the public, Bonitatibus said.
“We are at imminent failure status,” she said. “So if we don’t come up with a real reason to fix those locks, I’m afraid we are going to lose them.”
Bonitatibus urged the Augusta Commission to look toward the future and the possibilities of a whitewater rapids park.
“We are going to miss the boat,” Bonitatibus said. “We are going to miss the boat if we keep delaying this.”
But commissioners agreed to wait approximately 60 days before making a decision on the $10,000 contract to bring the McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group to Augusta.
As he geared up for his kayak trip down the Savannah River, Colbert said he understood that there were a lot of details that needed to be worked out before a whitewater rapids park in Augusta could become a reality.
However, he was still very hopeful about the possibility.
“The only real place to go that is even remotely like that around here is right there at Savannah Rapids Pavilion,” Colbert said. “There is a little shoot of water that you can go and learn how to surf across with a whitewater boat or just experience what it feels like to flip your boat over and have some turbulent water around you at the same time. But that’s really all you can do. So I hope this happens. I think it would be pretty cool for the entire area and the river.”