Environmental monitoring underway for Savannah harbor deepening

Senior Public Affairs Specialist
Published July 24, 2014

Editors Note: This is the first in a series of articles to explain environmental monitoring efforts associated with the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project. This series will focus on the various monitoring activities that must take place before construction begins. Subsequent articles will discuss specific features of the pre-construction environmental monitoring.

With the signing of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 earlier this year, many people expected construction of the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project (SHEP) to start immediately. However, several actions need to take place before construction can occur.

“Environmental monitoring ranks high in the hierarchy of actions that must take place before construction begins,” according to Jason O’Kane, senior project manager for the SHEP with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District. “Some of the pre-construction environmental monitoring takes a year or longer to accomplish before we can begin any work.”

Several pre-construction monitoring efforts began in 2013, others in 2014. Workers have completed some of the monitoring while other studies will occur periodically throughout the entire project, O’Kane explained.

“We conduct pre-construction monitoring for two main reasons,” said William Bailey, chief of planning for the Corps' Savannah District. “We want to make sure the environmental mitigation performs as we designed. We also want to ensure the impacts that we predicted are not exceeded.”

                            Pictured: An aerial view of the Savannah River in Savannah, Georgia.

The Corps prepared a “robust monitoring program” for the project, O’Kane said. Those efforts will cost only about $3 million per year in comparison to the project’s overall cost authorized by Congress at $706 million.

Of the 14 environmental monitoring studies, eight of them start before construction begins. Some of those will continue throughout construction. The studies include determining distribution of the endangered shortnose sturgeon in the lower Savannah River, as well as the concentrations of salinity and dissolved oxygen in the harbor’s water. The Corps will also continue its on-going monitoring of the Floridan aquifer, which supplies Savannah much of its drinking water.

“Monitoring will provide the public assurance that the Corps protects the environment and local drinking water,” Bailey said.

The American public and state and federal resource agencies have expressed concerns about environmental impacts throughout the 15 years the Corps has worked on the SHEP, according to Bailey. As workers collect environmental data, the District will post results online for all to review. Those results, along with other information on the monitoring effort, can be found on the SHEP Monitoring Program website at: www.shep.uga.edu.

“We intend to live up to our commitments to protect the environment as we improve the harbor, and we will show the results as they become available,” Bailey said.

The Corps of Engineers and the State of Georgia must deepen the Savannah harbor and shipping channel to accommodate much larger ships, many of which will soon be able to pass through the Panama Canal. The SHEP will deepen the harbor and shipping channel from its current 42 feet below mean low water to 47 feet. This will allow the new, larger ships with deeper drafts to enter and leave the harbor with heavier loads than is currently possible. It will also allow the ships greater time to ‘ride the tide’ into and out of the harbor.

By gathering data on the harbor as it exists before construction, experts from the Corps of Engineers can identify when changes occur during and after construction. “We will add this data to the vast volume of human knowledge so other proposed deepening projects elsewhere in the world can draw on our results,” O’Kane said.

“It’s a very comprehensive monitoring program that will provide a lot of information about the [Savannah River] estuary,” Bailey said. “Resource agencies and the public will be able to review the data as construction occurs to ensure the environment is protected.”

Most of the monitoring will occur in or near the Savannah harbor, including measuring chlorides in Abercorn Creek in Effingham County, where the City of Savannah draws water from the river for industrial and household use. Another study will determine the distribution of shortnose and Atlantic sturgeon in the Savannah River, from the harbor up to Augusta. Plans for the deepening include building a fish bypass around the lock and dam to reopen traditional spawning areas at the Augusta Shoals to sturgeon and other native fish.

In addition, the Corps built ‘adaptive management’ into environmental mitigation plans for the SHEP. Adaptive management allows managers to adjust mitigation features to react to real-world changes as the deepening progresses. With the baselines provided by the Corps’ pre-construction monitoring, operational managers will have the knowledge and ability to protect aquatic life and live up the pledge to protect the environment.


Pre-construction monitoring actions

Note: Some actions continue beyond pre-construction and some may extend beyond construction completion

Sturgeon Distribution – Estuary

Sturgeon Distribution – New Savannah Bluff Lock & Dam

Water Quality and Chloride Platform

Intensive Water Quality/Hydrology Event

Bathymetric Surveys

12 Marsh Sites – Vegetation and Salinity

Fish, Crab and Shrimp Distribution

Continuous Water Quality Monitoring

Chlorides in Abercorn Creek

Floridan Aquifer

Base Data and GIS Web Portal

Update Water Quality/Hydrology Models

Bird Monitoring

Downstream Dissolved Oxygen Plant Testing