Corps announces decision on fish passage; plans for public engagement

SAVANNAH, Ga. – This afternoon we announced a decision on the future of the fish passage at the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam near Augusta, Georgia. We selected alternative 2-6d, a set of river-width weirs followed by the removal of the deteriorating lock and dam.

We plan to hold a public engagement Nov. 13, from 6 to 7:30 p.m., at the Boathouse Community Center, 101 Riverfront Drive, Augusta, Georgia, where the public can hear details about the decision.

Alternative 2-6d will lower the average height of the river in the Augusta area approximately 2 feet from current average conditions. The introduction of multiple weirs will hold the water level above natural levels while allowing endangered fish, including the shortnose sturgeon, to reach traditional spawning grounds inaccessible since the lock and dam opened in 1937.

While the final report identifies Alternative 2-6d as the selected alternative, it also enables conditions necessary for modification to increase the weir height to allow for higher water. These modifications can be introduced either now or in the future following completion of construction.

Changing to a higher weir alternative before construction requires Georgia and South Carolina to work in concert with the project’s non-federal sponsor to form a locally preferred plan (LPP). The LPP must be requested by the non-federal sponsor.

Changing to a higher weir alternative after construction would require an agreement between a non-federal entity, the non-federal sponsors, and the Corps to pursue the modification.

Modifications to increase weir height would also increase nuisance flooding frequency on private property. Therefore, increasing the weir height would also require the non-federal interest group to secure flowage easements for affected properties.

Any modification before or after construction would require a non-federal funding source for the difference in cost of the change.

Many in the community have expressed the preference for a solution that keeps water levels identical to elevations observed on Dec. 16, 2016. However, with the introduction of any fish passage the river-system physics do not allow for water levels identical to that day’s conditions. River conditions would change even with the original fish passage design from 2014, which retained the entire lock and dam, according to the report.

The report
The final report incorporates comments from the Independent External Peer Review (IEPR) and 461 public comments, along with the Corps’ responses.

The Corps contracted the IEPR to evaluate the project study’s assumptions, methods, analyses, and calculations, and to identify the need for additional data or analyses. The panel agreed with the Corps’ analysis on 19 of the 21 comments made in the report.

The Corps adopted 33 of the panel’s 44 recommendations, and in doing so, integrated them into the final Fish Passage Report, and will further consider the recommendations during the detailed design phase of the project.

The Corps did not agree with comments and recommendations that were not in alignment with Section 1319 of the Water Resources Development Act of 2016 (WRDA 2016), Corps policy for planning studies, and technical performance criteria to comply with the Endangered Species Act.

The final Fish Passage Report is a smaller supplement to the 2012 Savannah Harbor Expansion Project Environmental Impact Statement (SHEP EIS), which was outside the scope of the IEPR analysis. The SHEP EIS previously eliminated from consideration a number of fishway types recommended by the IEPR.

The Corps re-evaluated both of the fishway designs referenced in the IEPR and confirmed elimination after applying the evaluation criteria explained in the report, including such factors as structural integrity, life-cycle operation and maintenance costs, and effectiveness for fish passage. One design the IEPR recommended for study is an out-of-river fish bypass channel, which is not compliant with WRDA 2016. The other proposed design is a narrower fishway through the lock chamber, which does not provide for full-river width fish passage as required to meet the project’s fish passage objectives, nor does it result in higher water levels when compared to the alternatives considered.

Public comments
Public comments were categorized into six main groups.

The largest category of comments (48%) were petitions to retain the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam. The Corps studied two alternatives that had the potential to retain the structure. Alternative 1-1, which would retain the gates only, was eliminated because it is unlikely to create satisfactory conditions needed to pass sturgeon effectively, in accordance with the required biological opinion. The other is the original fish passage design identified as the No Action Alternative. This alternative retained the entire structure with a fish passage around the South Carolina side. Legislation from WRDA 2016 eliminated this alternative.

Twenty-five percent of the comments expressed a preference for water levels higher than provided by the selected alternative. About half of this category specifically requested a higher weir, which remains an opportunity with non-federal funding.

The other half focused on concerns over the appearance of the shoreline and exposed training wall during the simulation in February 2019. Details on the analysis of the simulation are presented in the final report, including unique conditions that occurred causing an inaccurate portrayal river conditions of the selected alternative.

The primary reason for inaccuracy of river conditions in February is the flashboards at Stevens Creek Dam, which were being replaced during the simulation. The flashboards normally regulate discharge spikes from J. Strom Thurmond Dam (JST) to steady flows throughout the day. The result without flashboards showed conditions of the lowest possible flows one could reasonably expect to see instead of the intended low-average flows for the selected plan. When JST was not generating hydropower the releases downstream dropped close to zero for long periods throughout the day.

Despite those conditions, the water intake analysis by the Corps demonstrated there were no impacts to the water supply needs of the Augusta metro area for the recommended plan, Alternative 2-6d.

Approximately 4% of the comments were from private dock owners expressing concerns over impacts to their docks. The Corps encourages private dock owners to contact their respective Corps Regulatory offices for details on individual permits, and if needed, on permit modifications to extend or adjust docks.

Those comments in support of the selected alternative were 2% of the public comments.

Approximately 1% of the comments expressed water supply or intake concerns. During the simulation, which demonstrated conditions of extreme drought flow, no intake problems were identified.

The remaining comments were widely varying miscellaneous comments that didn’t fit into the other five categories. These accounted for about 20% of the total comments. Some were based on interests from state or federal agencies, some were based on assorted environmental interests, and others focused on varying individual distinctions of personal circumstances.

Maj. Gen. Diana Holland, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers South Atlantic Division commanding general, announced the decision earlier today to a number of stakeholders and elected officials, to include: Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, Georgia Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue, South Carolina Sens. Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham, U.S. Rep. Rick Allen (Georgia-12), U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson (South Carolina-2), Augusta, Georgia Mayor Hardie Davis Jr., and North Augusta, South Carolina, Mayor Bob Pettit. Several of the elected officials expressed disappointment and disagreed with the decision.

Corps officials intend to discuss more details and answer questions on the selected alternative at the Nov. 13 public engagement.

Reading the final report
The entire final report, titled Integrated Post Authorization Analysis Report and Supplemental Environmental Assessment (SEA), Fish Passage at New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam (NSBLD), and Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), is being loaded online at https://go.usa.gov/xVWxq. The report includes all the public comments along with Corps responses.

The fish passage project is an environmental mitigation feature of the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project, (SHEP) and is required mitigation in accordance with the Endangered Species Act and WRDA 2016. In accordance with the SHEP Biological Opinion, construction on the fish passage must begin before January 2021.

For more on the fish passage and the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam, see our past blog posts here.

For a history of the lock and dam, visit our webpage here.

~ Russell Wicke, Corporate Communications Office

About US Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District oversees a multimillion 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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