U.S. Reps. Joe Wilson and Rick Allen both described themselves as “encouraged” following a meeting with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and tour of the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam on Friday morning.
The two congressmen and other elected officials met with Col. Jason E. Kelly, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers South Atlantic Division, who assumed that role in June.
The tour comes right after a stay was lifted from a lawsuit over the often contentious issue of the lock and dam.
Kelly said during a press briefing following the tour that visiting the lock and dam was of the “utmost importance because I wanted to understand the many complexities associated with this project.”
“I understand the importance, understand what it means to this community, this community's interest in this project, and really I wanted to make sure that I understood so that we could remain open and we could remain accessible, and really think about the options that are there,” Kelly said.
The Corps of Engineers has been tasked as part of the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project to provide a fish passage so sturgeon can migrate to historic spawning grounds upstream.
The corps has announced that its chosen path for the project is to remove the structure and build a rock weir. Local municipalities have fought against that plan because, as presented, it will lower the river pool near downtown North Augusta and Augusta.
A lawsuit filed by South Carolina to prevent that is making its way through the courts.
“The truth of the matter is we have some requirements to place a fish passage, and what we’re going to do, the current plan, is one that retains the highest pool without inducing nuisance flooding that will permit an endangered species to move to a historic spawning ground. What we aim to do is to make sure we do that while doing no harm,” Kelly said.
Anytime you make an adjustment to the river, he said, you are “toying with nature.”
“In doing so there is a loss in the pool, we think right now it’s about 2 feet, but there are options and so as we do that, what I want to make sure everyone understands is that there are modifications that can be made to the current plan,” Kelly said, adding those modifications cost money, and would require a non-federal sponsor, congressional legislation or legal action.
“We’re prepared to pivot, but what I’ll offer is the current plan is intended and will satisfy the current requirement.”
Kelly said Friday’s visit was about transparency.
“We want to be open and accessible, so today is really about making sure that we are well-informed, that we understand and I think that our elected officials are mindful of what we’re doing and really looking at other options, and that’s exactly what we wanted to do today, so this is all about coming together, accessibility, transparency from the Army Corps of Engineers.”
Wilson and Allen, along with North Augusta Mayor Bob Pettit, Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis, and South Carolina Rep. Bill Hixon, R-North Augusta, met with Kelly for the tour of the 83-year-old lock and dam.
Allen said he is extremely encouraged “because this is the first time the head of the Corps of Engineers South Atlantic Division’s been on this site and we’ve met face to face, and he said let’s take a look at this and see what we can come up with.”
Wilson, too, said he was encouraged by the Corps’ visit, and mentioned that every level of government has been working together to save the height of the river pool at 114.5 feet.
“Mayor Bob Pettit of North Augusta is here, he has been a champion for maintaining 114.5. State Rep. Bill Hixon is here working very closely with Sen. Tom Young working for 114.5. I’m also grateful for Sen. Lindsey Graham, Sen. Tim Scott,” Wilson said.
“Again it’s been every level of government working together to maintain the pool. The law provides that the pool must be maintained as of that date of the passage of the legislation – 114.5.”
Pettit also spoke during the press briefing, and said it was beneficial to listen to Kelly, as well as Col. Daniel Hibner, the commander of the Savannah District of the Corps.
“I’ve been involved with many of these people for three years and have been, I think, a stalwart fighter for maintaining the pool at 114.5,” Pettit said.
“There’s legislation now that the state of South Carolina and the city of Augusta filed, and I believe that it’s in the best interest of all parties that they sit down and figure out a solution to this and that i know it’s in the legislature now,” Pettit said.
Officials Allen, Wilson and other U.S. House representatives have been working to have wording included in the final 2020 Water Resources Development Act related to the lock and dam.
That bill is in the Senate now, and Allen said the four senators from South Carolina and Georgia are working toward maintaining the pool.
“They are going to pass a companion WRDA bill, that WRDA bill is probably going to conference,” Allen said.
“We’re trying to get the language in there to give these fine people direct instructions on what they have to do. Once the congress says ‘OK, this is what we have to do,’ then they can proceed, then we can get the funding, get this thing fixed and that’s the ultimate solution.”