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Ports & Transportation

FEATURE: New laws passed by Congress impact New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam, and Savannah Harbor Deepening projected costs

Category: Ports & Transportation

By Lou Phelps, Savannah Business Journal

April 17, 2017 – Two weeks ago, an Associated Press reporter, doing his job, asked for an update on the Savannah Harbor Deepening project.  Turns out that the Georgia Ports Authority and the Army Corps of Engineers has known for a significant period of time that the project would be delayed more than two years from previous timetables, and the cost is now approaching a billion dollars. 

When this all was known is still not exactly clear.  But, what is relevant is that a significant portion of the cost of the harbor deepening is due to a myriad of environmental remediation, and those remediation efforts may change, based on testing of their effectiveness. 

In December, Congress passed a law which will impact the Savannah River Basin. The Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, known as the WIIN Act, became public law Dec. 16, 2016. A specific section of this law directly affects the Savannah River just below Augusta, and has an overall impact on the harbor deepening. 

There is also, however, the possibility that the Trump Administration will work to charge aspects of the legislation, based on President Trump’s statements about making wholesale changes at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

What the Law Says

According to the Army Corp of Engineers, Savannah District, “The WIIN Act calls for changes to the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam (NSBL&D) – changes that would improve an environmental mitigation feature associated with the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project.” 

The NSBL&D was authorized in the 1930s by the Rivers and Harbors Act to facilitate commercial navigation on the Savannah River. The federal purpose for the structure was to enable commerce by water up to Augusta, and federal tax dollars were appropriated annually to operate and maintain the project.

Commercial navigation ceased in 1979 and over time the integrity of NSBL&D has gradually degraded. Although we have sought funds for rehabilitation, none has been appropriated. As such, the structure has fallen into a state of disrepair and poses a safety hazard to the public.

The WIIN Act acknowledges this and formally deauthorizes the navigation structure. Deauthorization is the official classification when the federal government determines a project no longer has a federal requirement for its original purpose, in this case, commercial navigation.

By de-authorizing NSBL&D, the WIIN Act supersedes a section of law from the Water Resources and Development Act of 2000, which directed the Corps to rehabilitate the structure and turn it over to the care of North Augusta or some other local entity.

“Yet the NSBL&D presents another challenge,” according to the Corps. “By its mere presence it acts as an impassable barrier to endangered Atlantic sturgeon, shortnose sturgeon and other fish, denying access to their historic spawning grounds. In response to this, the SHEP environmental approvals required construction of a fish passage around this federal barrier.”

The WIIN Act offers two alternatives made possible through de-authorization, the Corps explains.  One of the alternatives must be implemented; both eliminate the need for a separate fish passage around the structure. Both alternatives would enable fish to migrate upstream in the river, avoiding the need to dig a separate channel around the NSBL&D.

One alternative calls for repair of the lock wall and modification of the structure to serve two purposes: 1) “to allow safe passage over the structure to historic spawning grounds” of Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon, in a way that enables the structure to 2) “maintain the pool for navigation upstream, water supply, and recreational activities.”

The other alternative calls for removal of the NSBL&D after constructing a water damming structure (or weir) “at an appropriate location” in the river, that would “maintain the pool for water supply and recreational activities” for communities upstream of the current structure. This weir would continue to provide an upstream pool but also permit fish to pass upstream to historic spawning grounds.

Impacts to Communities

The entire section of the WIIN Act related to NSBL&D is less than 600 words. “The language is written in such a way that it allows reasonable freedom to engineer a solution that considers our stakeholders, threatened and endangered species and the American taxpayer,” explains the Corps.

Based on the flexibility allowed for design, it is too early to speculate about what the final solution will look like, or estimate a final cost.

“Since the law was only recently enacted, it is important to emphasize the Corps requires reasonable time for analysis. The timeline of this analysis is difficult to predict, but it will involve additional studies before a final solution is determined. The bottom line is that we intend to propose a cost-effective solution that addresses and balances the needs of all stakeholders, from local public to endangered species – and taxpayers in general. Until then, there is additional analysis needed of the alternatives to determine how to best meet the intent of the law. This is a responsibility the Corps takes very seriously. We have already been consulting with a number of stakeholders to include the Augusta Consortium, the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce, the Augusta mayor and other industrial and municipal partners. We will continue meeting with stakeholders and those from the community as we evaluate possible solutions. And we welcome input from anyone who has interest in the process,” the Corps states in a press release last month. 

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