AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says it’s legally required to remove a dam to improve fish habitat in the Savannah River. Now a Georgia city may join the state of South Carolina in taking the federal government to court to save the dam, and keep the upstream river running high.
The Augusta commission plans to discuss a potential lawsuit next week. Mayor Pro Tem Sean Frantom told WJBF-TV that “all options are on the table.”
“I think many of us would like to keep the lock and dam. I’m not sure that’s even feasible, based on how the Corps is responding to us and everything. We’re setting ourselves up for litigation,” he said.
Officials say removing the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam would lower upstream water levels by at least 2 feet (0.6 meters). That could be lower than the intakes local governments and industries use to withdraw water from the elevated Savannah River. It also would make recreation less attractive along a river where dozens of affluent homeowners maintain docks.
The Corps announced plans this month to remove the dam and build a series of rock weirs across the river to comply with a 2016 law meant to improve fish habitats. It says an earlier proposal to keep the dam and build a fish passage around it won’t maintain the water level.
Removing the dam, which was built in 1937 and is deteriorating, would mitigate damage from another big project, to deepen the harbor at the city of Savannah. The goal is to enable shortnose and Atlantic sturgeon to reach their historic spawning grounds at Augusta.
But opponents say the same law requires the Corps to maintain the river at the level it was when the law was enacted. South Carolina has already sued to try to block the removal, citing this requirement, and says the dam’s removal could lower water levels by as much as 5 feet.
“This is about the pool level. So whatever we’ve got to do to maintain the pool level is what we need to do,” Frantom said.
The Corps has said that the states of Georgia and South Carolina and the Georgia Ports Authority could agree to build a higher weir to increase water levels, paying an estimated $27 million to make up the difference in costs. However, that could lead to more frequent flooding of some properties.