Lock and Dam

The New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam, shown here in a Jan. 11 scene, remains the focal point of intense discussion and planning at the local, state and federal level, with Georgia and South Carolina representatives raising concerns about property values, recreation, environmental protection and economic growth.

Another local player with interests in the Savannah River has filed to intervene in the lawsuit brought against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by the state of South Carolina regarding the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam.

The Savannah Riverkeeper – a nonprofit that works to “restore the quality of the river, protect the people and ecosystems that rely on it, and educate the public about their right to clean water,” as described on its website – filed a motion to intervene on Feb. 14.

The lawsuit is focused on the lock and dam, and the Corps’ decision to replace the existing structure with a rock weir, and was filed Nov. 5.

A release from South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson accompanying the suit claims the Corps ignored federal and state law, and that the suit was filed to prevent the Corps from tearing down the lock and dam and replacing it with a structure that would lower the water level of the river pool.

Savannah Riverkeeper is the third party to file a motion to intervene; both the city of Augusta and the Georgia Ports Authority have been granted their motions to intervene.

The issue came about as the Corps has been tasked with the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project fish passage project, which requires that an alternative to the current lock and dam situation be constructed to offset the effects of the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project in Savannah, Georgia, on sturgeon. Upstream from the lock and dam are historic sturgeon breeding grounds.

The Corps' chosen path forward includes removing the lock and dam, and replacing it with a rock weir, which the Corps stated in October 2019 will “lower the average height of the river in the Augusta area 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,” according to the October 2019 release.

The city of North Augusta and Aiken County have opposed that Corps' plan, and voted to support a different option that would retain the lock and dam structure.

The motion to intervene from the Savannah Riverkeeper states the organization “believes there is a middle ground approach” that would do four things. They are: ensure safe, effective, and timely fish passage over the structure; maintain the water levels in the pool and meet the needs of the local communities; preserve the lock and dam park to allow river access for all people; and create safe passage for people around the structure.

“For example,” the motion reads, “after working with experts during the public comment phase, (Savannah Riverkeeper) advocated for a modified rock dam with crest gates and a bypass channel.”

Filed alongside the motion to intervene was a declaration by Tonya Bonitatibus, the Riverkeeper and executive director of Savannah Riverkeeper.

“(Savannah Riverkeeper) supports the Corps’ plans for the removal of the current structure and the construction of a rock dam as a fish passage solution,” the declaration says.

“However, we also believe that it is important for the Corps to consider and ultimately choose an alternative that meets the needs of the community.”

The motion from Savannah Riverkeeper states that its counsel has communicated with counsel for other parties to the case, and says that the federal defendants and the Georgia Ports Authority take no position on the Savannah Riverkeeper’s request to intervene.

“The South Carolina Plaintiffs oppose (Savannah Riverkeeper)’s request to intervene as a plaintiff, but acknowledged that they would consent to (Savannah Riverkeeper)’s intervention as a defendant. Intervenor-Plaintiff City of Augusta opposes (Savannah Riverkeeper)’s request to intervene,” the motion reads.

Along with Savannah Riverkeeper’s motion, the federal defendants in the case – including the Corps of Engineers, its Savannah District and individuals who work for it – filed a motion on Feb. 13 to dismiss five of the six claims made in South Carolina’s complaint, and in opposition to the plaintiff’s motion for partial summary judgement.

The Corps’ motion states that the court “does not have jurisdiction to entertain five of the six claims South Carolina advances in this suit, but even if it did, those claims fail as a matter of law. For those reasons, the court should dismiss them.”

Follow Lindsey on Twitter at @LindseyNHodges.