CSRA officials react to Savannah River drawdown

February 21, 2019

The Savannah District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held a drawdown simulation of the Savannah River last week demonstrating their preferred alternative for the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project fish passage project and received a lot of backlash for the effects it had on the river level.

Under the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act, the Corps is required to provide fish passage for endangered species, specifically the shortnose sturgeon. The WIIN Act also deauthorized the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam.

The simulation showed the level the river pool would be under the Corps’ preferred alternative, Alternative 2-6d, or a fixed rock weir with a dry floodplain bench on the Georgia side of the river.

A Jan. 31 post on the Corps’ website says “The fixed weir is expected to decrease the water level about 1 to 2 feet at the 5th Street Bridge gauge during average flow conditions in the downtown Augusta area.”

The simulation was ended early Friday after it had reached the target level due to river bank instability near Goodale Landing on the Georgia side of the river, but not before the drawdown received criticism for the low water levels it caused. Photos circulating online showed docks sitting on drained river beds.

North Augusta Mayor Bob Pettit mentioned the early end to the drawdown during Monday evening’s study session meeting.

“This is a perfectly editorial comment on my part, unsubstantiated by any fact, but I would suspect the Corps of Engineers was more than happy to bring that pool back up to its normal level as quickly as they could to avoid having people having a week to look at it being down so low,” Pettit said.

“I mean that’s just – well you can almost imagine if you were in that situation and all the heat that was being generated by that you would want to get that off the front page as quickly as you could.”

Aiken County, the City of North Augusta and the City of Augusta, Georgia have each officially supported a different alternative than the one preferred by the Corps.

The Corps also released the draft report on the recommended plan on Friday. A 30-day comment period began Saturday, where the public can review the Corps’ work and submit comments and concerns.

During the North Augusta City Council study session on Monday evening, Pettit said they were in the process of drafting a letter requesting an additional 30-day comment period, and said the City of Augusta will be doing the same.

North Augusta, Augusta and Aiken County have all supported Option 1-1, which would retain the dam with fish passage on the Georgia side.

Georgia Congressman Rep. Rick Allen took a tour of the Lock and Dam on Friday.

“We need to resolve this,” Allen said.

“I think everybody understood, when the thing was de-authorized, that we were going to maintain the pool. I told the Corps, ‘You can’t do that unless you have the lock.’ I mean, the lock is what maintains the pool, because we had stakeholders with different opinions, but again … I’m not an engineer. I’m a building-construction graduate, but I know how to deal with water, and the only way to maintain that pool is this lock,” he said.

During Monday’s meeting, Pettit spoke about working with the South Carolina delegation on the issue, and said Rep. Joe Wilson, a South Carolina Republican, has said all along he will support what the city wants.

“We’ve spoken with Sen. (Lindsey) Graham’s staff and Sen. (Tim) Scott’s staff in Washington I’m guessing maybe a month and a half, two months ago … its my opinion at least that we’re having a difficult time getting them to focus on the issue,” Pettit said.

When the Corps of Engineers announced that Alternative 2-6d was their preferred choice in November 2018, they said they had gone by six evaluation factors – ability to pass fish, cost, navigation, water supply, recreation and flooding – and assigned a score of either -1, 0, or 1 to each factor.

During Monday’s study session, North Augusta City Administrator Todd Glover mentioned that evaluation method and what was discussed during a meeting between city leaders and officials from the Corps. Both Alternative 2-6d and 1-1 each scored a 4 on the evaluation, he said, and added that Option 1-1 received a 0, or neutral, under the fish passage category and Alternative 2-6d received a 1.

“When we pressed the Corps on why it received a 0, neutral, we were told during that meeting that fisheries had never evaluated option 1-1 and so we questioned how they were able to assign a value in a decision-making matrix and, correct me if I’m wrong, the answer was ‘We chose the one we thought that fisheries would like the most,’” Glover said.

“So we have a very big problem when if … 1-1 had gotten a 1 as well, it would have scored a 5 and would have been the highest rated proposal of all the options. To think that scores were being assigned in a decision-making matrix without any evaluation from ... these outside agencies is flabbergasting ” he said.

The Corps of Engineers responded to Glover’s comment.

“What we said was, that 1-1 received received a 0 (and not a 1) on fish passage because 1-1 didn’t have 100 percent river flow through the fish passage portion,” said Russell Wicke, Corporate Communications Officer U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“Part of the flow would be going over the gates from the structure, and possibly leaking through other areas such as the bottom of the gates. Water flowing from the gates on the dam may cause a false attraction for sturgeon, who depend on water flow to navigate upstream. If they are drawn to water flowing from the gates it would delay or possibly prevent passage, since sturgeon cannot get over the gates,” Wicke said.

The Corps’ draft report can be found on the Corps’ website. In addition to the comment period, the Corps will also hold an interactive workshop in the Augusta area on March 6, where the public can learn about the report and hear a presentation from the Corps.