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Corps announces decision on New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam

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The potential fate of the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam is becoming clearer following a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announcement Tuesday, but as the Corps plans to move forward, officials from both South Carolina and Georgia continue to push back.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced Tuesday it has selected Alternative 2-6d, "a set of river-width weirs followed by the removal of the deteriorating lock and dam," according to a press release.

It states that Maj. Gen. Diana Holland, commanding general of the Corps' South Atlantic Division, announced the decision to "a number of stakeholders and elected officials" on Tuesday.

The list includes South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, South Carolina Sens. Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham, Georgia Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue, U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson (South Carolina-2), U.S. Rep. Rick Allen (Georgia-12), North Augusta Mayor Bob Pettit, and Augusta, Georgia, Mayor Hardie Davis.

"Several of the elected officials expressed disappointment and disagreed with the decision," the release states.

The Corps announced in November 2018 their preferred alternative was 2-6d and in February held a simulation that mimicked the effects of the weir on the river.

Public outcry followed after photos of dry river beds under boat docks circulated.

Both the city of North Augusta and Aiken County have supported a different option from the Corps, one which would maintain the dam and include fish passage on the Georgia side.

"I am very disappointed that Gen. Holland has decided on Alternative 2-6d, I think that's the worst of all the possible options that she had to choose from," said Pettit. "That will be a disaster for the river fronts of both North Augusta and Augusta."

Reps. Allen and Wilson released a joint statement regarding the issue, calling the announcement an "affront the the public" as well as "gross overreach and misuse of power."

"Since the day the Corps announced their disastrous plans to remove the Lock and Dam and replace it with a rock weir, we have fought their decision tooth and nail – and warned the Corps that they will not be able to maintain the pool, as required under federal law. In a bicameral, bi-state manner, the Senators and members of Congress representing the CSRA sent a letter to the Corps saying that the intent of Congress was to maintain the pool level at the date of enactment – not for functionality like the Corps claims. To lower the pool level in such an irreversible manner would negatively impact recreation, economic development and the industries up and down the river, not to mention an increased chance of flooding," the statement reads.

It later says the state of South Carolina is expected to file a lawsuit against the Corps "as early as this week."

The Corps has been tasked with finding a cost-effective solution that would allow fish – specifically shortnose and Atlantic sturgeon – to pass upstream.

The Lock and Dam was de-authorized in 2016 by the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act.

The release from the Corps states that 2-6d will lower the average height of the river in the Augusta area by approximately 2 feet from current average conditions.

"The introduction of multiple weirs will hold the water level above natural levels while allowing endangered fish, including the shortnose sturgeon, to reach traditional spawning grounds inaccessible since the lock and dam opened in 1937," the release reads.

A resolution passed by the North Augusta City Council in January 2019 quotes the WIIN Act regarding the river pool level. "The 2016 WIIN Act states that any mitigation project selected by the Corps must 'maintain the pool … as in existence on the date of enactment of this act,'" the resolution reads. The act was passed Dec. 16, 2016.

The release from the Corps addresses this matter, stating that with any fish passage, the river-system physics do not allow for water levels identical to that day's conditions.

The Corps will hold a public engagement event on Nov. 13 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the Boathouse Community Center at 101 Riverfront Drive in Augusta, Georgia.

Lindsey Hodges is a general assignment reporter at the Aiken Standard and North Augusta Star. Follow her on Twitter at @LindseyNHodges.