The mayors of Augusta and North Augusta, South Carolina, hosted a public meeting Thursday night to discuss an Army Corp of Engineers plan to replace the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam with a rock weir.
The project is part of environmental remediation for the Savannah Harbor deepening. The primary goal is to create a passage for short nose and atlantic sturgeon to get to their historic spawning grounds in the Augusta Shoals, about 19 miles upstream from the site of the lock and dam. Both species are considered “endangered.”
Roughly 200 people packed into the commissioners’ chambers on the second floor of the Augusta Municipal Building. Those speaking in favor of replacing the lock and dam with a rock weir were far outnumbered by those wanting to keep the lock and dam in place.
The differences in opinion lead to some heated exchanges, particularly between the owners of riverfront property and those who were more broadly concerned about environment issues.
The rock weir, which would span the entire river, would result in a lower water level as the river moved through Augusta. During tests in February, it left boat docks sitting on mud flats and exposed previously submerged structures, such as old bridge pilings that endangered recreational boaters.
However, the rock weir would allow the sturgeon and other species to pass upstream. A sturgeon expert with The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said a similar structure has been installed on the Cape Fear River in North Carolina, resulting in a noticeable increase in the population of the endangered sturgeon.
12th District Congressman (R) Rick Allen is opposed to removing the lock and dam.
"We have got to get The Corps of Engineers to understand that there will be no exceptions," he told the meeting attendees. "That lock and dam is gonna stay in place. It's going to be repaired, and it's going to be maintained. Period.”
His statement was received with a loud round of applause.
However, money is still an issue. New figures presented to the city by the Corps show that the cost of repairing and maintaining the dam, and adding a fish passage on the Georgia Side of the river, is nearly three times that of replacing it with the proposed rock weir.
The public comment period for the project ends April 16. After that, a decision will be made by Corps of Engineers commanders in Atlanta as to what will be done.
Their goal is to begin construction no later than January of 2021.