Low Flows from Thurmond Dam: A Downstream Perspective

Editor’s note: This post is guest authored by Dr. Will Duncan, Aquatic Ecologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Will works on in-stream flow and habitat issues in the southeastern United States. In this post, he provides perspective on environmental needs in the basin downstream of the J. Strom Thurmond Dam.

In regulated rivers throughout the USA, stakeholders and managers have confronted issues of water scarcity and have produced viable solutions to complex water management problems. The challenges faced across the land are frequently quite similar. Namely, water uses are many but water quantity is limited. How can water be managed in a manner that takes into account society’s needs and the needs of wildlife? Answers to these questions are paramount during this age of increased water demands, dwindling habitats, and increased threats to aquatic life – warning signs that environmental health is worsening.

The Savannah River Basin is no exception. Reservoir recreational enthusiasts and homeowners prefer high reservoir levels. However, the Savannah River extends over 220 miles below Thurmond Dam. This portion of the river basin provides drinking water to Augusta and Savannah, habitat for plants and wildlife, water for power generation at Plant Vogtle, freshwater for ducks at the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, and water for the disappearing freshwater marsh in the estuary. Because of [past] harbor deepening, diversions of large water volumes by the Augusta Canal, reservoir construction, increased water use, and discharge of wastewater, the amount of habitat for both rare and common aquatic plants and animals has dwindled. Smart management of the remaining habitat and wildlife is critical if these resources are to be maintained for the continuing benefit of the American people.

Impacts to aquatic plants and animals recently have been observed throughout the lower Savannah River during low flow releases from Thurmond Dam. Access to favorite fishing holes in backwater oxbow habitats has been significantly reduced for recreational fishermen. Boat ramps have become unusable. One of the three remaining populations of the Shoals Spider-Lily has gone extinct. At several locations, mussels that filter and clean water have died. At times, the amount of oxygen in water has fallen to levels considered harmful to aquatic life. The amount of salt in the estuary has risen, frequently making it a challenge to provide freshwater habitat for ducks and other wetland birds. This much is certain, however. Much has already been lost. Impacts are real and should be considered. Some impacts are permanent. Solutions can be found.

The mission of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: working with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. ~By Dr. Will Duncan, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Low flows in the lower river have prevented boating access to backwater habitats for recreational fishing, and exposed habitats that are used by fishes and mussels.

Low flows in the lower river have prevented boating access to backwater habitats for recreational fishing, and exposed habitats that are used by fishes and mussels.

 

The Shoals Spider-Lily is dwindling in numbers throughout the region, partly due to reservoir construction.  One of the three remaining populations in the Savannah River is now extinct.  It is impacted by low water levels that are caused by the diversion of water by the Augusta Diversion Dam, limited water releases from Thurmond Dam, and overgrazing by deer.

The Shoals Spider-Lily is dwindling in numbers throughout the region, partly due to reservoir construction. One of the three remaining populations in the Savannah River is now extinct. It is impacted by low water levels that are caused by the diversion of water by the Augusta Diversion Dam, limited water releases from Thurmond Dam, and overgrazing by deer.

 

Recreational fishing is common throughout the lower river.  This redfin pickerel is one of many fishes caught by this fisherman.

Recreational fishing is common throughout the lower river. This redfin pickerel is one of many fishes caught by this fisherman.

About US Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District oversees a multi-million dollar military construction program at 11 Army and Air Force installations in Georgia and North Carolina. We also manage water resources across the Coastal Georgia region, including maintenance dredging of the Savannah and Brunswick harbors; operation of three hydroelectric dams and reservoirs along the upper Savannah River; and administration of an extensive stream and wetland permitting and mitigation program within the state of Georgia. Follow us on Twitter @SavannahCorps and on Facebook.com/SavannahCorps
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