The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District and the City of Augusta, Georgia, will close all access to a portion of the New Savannah Bluff Lock & Dam on May 15 due to safety concerns with the aging structure. Operation of the lock will also end May 15.
“A recent periodic inspection and assessment of the New Savannah Bluff Lock & Dam indicated continuing deterioration under the riverside lock wall which could place visitors using the wall in danger,” Dam Safety Program Manager Beth Williams, of the Savannah District said. “While we do not expect a collapse of the lock wall, possible instability of the structure still exceeds prudent safety levels. We determined we needed to take appropriate safety precautions to prevent potential injury or loss of life to people using the lock and dam for recreation.”
The deterioration affects a portion of the riverbed underneath the downstream end of the riverside lock wall. Continuing erosion under the riverside lock wall has exposed supporting timber piles making them vulnerable to water damage and decay. Channel scour progressing toward the downstream entrance to the lock also increases instability and the risk associated with possible collapse.
Visitors will still be allowed access to the landside of the lock for fishing. The City of Augusta operates the park and facilities at the lock and dam and, until this closure, it also operated the lock. The city only operates the lock a few dozen times per year for recreational boating and to pass fish during spawning season. Boat ramps above and below the dam remain open. Fishing from the landside of the lock also remains available to the public.
The New Savannah Bluff Lock & Dam opened in 1939 to aid navigation between Savannah and Augusta. No regular commercial traffic has used the river since 1978. Other than pleasure craft only very limited special-use barge traffic has used the river since. The Savannah District ended maintenance of the river for navigation above Savannah in 1979.
In the Water Resources Development Act of 2000, Congress authorized the Corps of Engineers to rehabilitate the lock and dam for transfer to local government ownership and operation. Congress has not provided funds for the rehabilitation. At that time costs to repair the structure were estimated at $24 million. The Corps of Engineers is preparing a current cost estimate.
The Corps of Engineers will continue operation of the dam’s gates for control of the pool behind the dam. Plans call for a fish passage around the lock and dam as an environmental mitigation measure for the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project. This passage will allow migrating fish perpetual access to upstream spawning areas.