The fate of the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam has become a topic widely discussed in the past year. The issues surrounding the lock and dam are complex and deeply rooted in the past.
The Federal Government completed construction of the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam in 1937 for the authorized purpose of commercial navigation. Commercial navigation then ceased along the Savannah River in 1979. Since that time, the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam (now 81 years old) lost its ability to compete for Federal funds necessary for operations and maintenance. It was subsequently moved into caretaker status in 1985 when Federal funding was further curtailed.
Over time the structure atrophied. Cracks have grown in the spillway piers and other structural problems continue to emerge.
In an effort to deal with this potentially excess Federal structure, the Corps initiated a study in 1999 to determine its contribution to commercial navigation. This authority, Section 216 of the Flood Control Act of 1970, allows the Chief of Engineers to study and make recommendations to Congress on completed Corps projects to determine whether they function in a satisfactory manner and whether potential exists for better serving the public interest. The report concluded that the lock and dam no longer fulfilled its Federal navigation purpose, and its degradation required major, costly repairs. Thus removal of the structure was in the best interest of Federal taxpayers. The Corps’ Savannah District released draft findings for public comment in 2000.
Some local interests objected to the report’s recommendations due to the benefit derived by the surrounding communities and not related to commercial navigation. Municipal and Industrial intakes, boat docks, and other recreational activities came to depend on the navigation pool created by the dam, even though these activities were not authorized Federal purposes. Congress passed legislation in 2000, with subsequent amendments in 2001, directing the Corps to discontinue their analysis under the Section 216 authority and to refrain from making a recommendation to Congress. It further created an authority for the Corps to rehabilitate the lock and dam at Federal expense and then transfer ownership to local authorities. Unfortunately, the rehabilitation was never funded.
Our challenge with this structure is not unique. There are currently more than 1,100 navigation structures across the nation that require annual funding. Only 25 to 30 percent of those structures receive funding in meaningful amounts. The average age of our locks is over 60 years and the need for repairs are becoming more frequent, extensive, and costly. Each year dollars appropriated for the Corps’ navigation mission falls far short of the amount needed to fund and operate every structure. Therefore the Federal Government prioritizes funding to support the most beneficial projects in order to stretch the benefit of limited taxpayer dollars. This prioritization determines which projects obtain funding. Given the Dam’s condition and lack of commercial navigation, it will continue to fall short for funding in the budgetary process.
Why the connection to the Savannah Harbor Expansion?
The US Army Corps of Engineers, Savannah District, is deepening the Savannah harbor to accommodate larger container vessels. Environmental mitigation features are incorporated into the project and are required by the National Environmental Policy Act, including a feature to mitigate impacts in the harbor for the endangered shortnose sturgeon. As the project developed, no solution could be found that would mitigate impacts to the sturgeon in the Harbor’s footprint. Thus, engineers and scientists looked 187 miles upstream for a solution at the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam, where sturgeon were blocked access to their historical spawning grounds. The most affordable solution to achieve the required mitigation would be to remove the structure and allow sturgeon to pass. However the 2000/2001 law prohibited its demolition. The Corps determined that the best, and only, alternative would be to construct a fish passage to carry nearly 100 percent of the river’s flow around the structure.
What about the Water Infrastructure Improvement for the Nation (WIIN) Act?
The WIIN Act legislation in December 2016 addressed the dilemma of building a fish passage around a structure that was no longer viable. The legislation directed a solution that recognized and secured the pool in perpetuity while solving the problem posed by the dilapidated structure. The lock and dam would be removed and replaced by a fixed structure or modified to allow for the passage of fish while maintaining a pool for upstream water supply and recreation.
This legislation provides an achievable solution to meet Federal mitigation requirements. The focus now involves studying the range of alternatives that comply with the WIIN Act. This study will inform our decision-making process and we will prepare a draft document that outlines the potential solutions. This report will be made available for public comment and input. Ultimately, we will provide a recommended solution to the Secretary of the Army for final decision. The fate of the lock and dam is set - we expect construction to begin with its complete removal or its substantive modification in January 2021.