COLUMBIA – A panel created to represent South Carolina’s interests in the Savannah River moved today to set limits on a dredging project, moves that officials said would both save money and protect wildlife.

Among the recommendations approved by the Savannah River Maritime Commission is a proposal to limit dredging of the river to 45 feet. Going to that depth, instead of the 47 feet currently planned, would not only allow the project to proceed without additional federal funding but would also be safer for fish in the area, according to an attorney who advises the commission.

The $600 million deepening project will help Georgia handle the larger ships that will come calling once the Panama Canal is widened in three years.

“From the very beginning, we’ve been concerned about the environmental impacts to the Savannah River,” state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, a commission member, said today. “The Savannah River is a shared resource, and to needlessly destroy the environment is really unacceptable.”

During a 30-minute closed-door session, Attorney General Alan Wilson also briefed commission members on the litigation surrounding the contentious dredging proposal. Wilson represents the Commission in its appeal of the Department of Health and Environmental Control’s decision to grant Georgia the water quality permits needed for the project. DHEC staff initially rejected the application, citing unacceptable harm to the waterway’s endangered sturgeon and fragile marshes.

But less than two months later, the agency’s board approved a compromise with Georgia officials and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The approval came after Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal made a last-minute visit to discuss the issue with South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who appoints the members of the commission.

The Commission has said DHEC improperly approved the permit. Statehouse Democrats and Republicans united to unanimously approve a bill that would suspend DHEC’s ability to consider dredging issues since 2007 – the year the Commission was created. Haley vetoed the measure but was quickly overridden by both chambers.

There are two other legal challenges to the project. South Carolina’s Supreme Court is considering environmental groups’ lawsuit over whether the state’s environmental officials had the ability to issue water permits. A federal judge is slated to decide whether the deepening requires a pollution permit from the state before work can begin.

At issue are billions of dollars in economic activity for Savannah and Charleston, which is also seeking to deepen its harbor and has received $2.5 million in federal money to study the project. The states have proposed a joint port along the Savannah River in rural Jasper County, miles closer to the Atlantic Ocean than Savannah’s.

South Carolina legislators have argued that Savannah’s project will harm the environment and kill plans for a port in Jasper County. But Georgia’s plans for the Savannah port dredging calls for sludge to be dumped on the Jasper site for decades.

The Commission voted today to ask Georgia for a report on the potential impacts from that dumping.

The panel is sending its recommendation on to the Georgia Ports Authority. A spokesman for that agency did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.