UPDATE: LOCK & DAM, what's going on?

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Wednesday, Feburary 13, 2019
(News 12 at 6 o'clock)

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT)--"Save the pool," the phrase is catchy enough to have even leaders chanting it. Wednesday, the Federal Corps of Engineers reached its targeted river level for its simulation if a smaller rock dam were to be in place of the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam. Lower river levels, are still just as polarizing as the first day when the simulation began.

Back on Feb. 6, the Corps started to lower the water to show what the pool would look like. Turns out, some areas saw a muddy pit, but that's not the case for most areas.

Low levels, and low spirits about it--that's where we're at now. But let's rewind to 2015.  READ THIS. 

The Savannah Harbor Expansion Project began in 2015. The federal government says expanding the harbor would create a significant
economic impact. So the Corps went to work, making the harbor deeper so that more boats and bigger ships could get through. That price tag for the entire SCHEP effort currently sits at $973 million. And the Lock and Dam is a part of it.

Why? Well, because as they were deepening the harbor, the salinity was increasing--more salty water was upstream. Sturgeon live in salt water, they're endangered and federal law says they have to be protected. They've got to get upstream.

But the Lock and Dam is falling a part, has been for decades, it's adding no impact to the national economy, and it's in the way. The federal government says the protected fish have to get upstream. To help that happen, a new-something must be in the place of the Lock and Dam. The new 'something' is a smaller dam (rock weir), with a huge impact.

The impact as the Corps explains is the water will be 3.5 feet lower at the Lock and Dam; leading to about one foot lower downtown in some spots. When we asked the the Corps for a ratio of the water levels, we're told at least 77 percent of time the level will that way. But it could be more or less in some parts because it's hard to guarantee levels of such a large body of water.

Tuesday, January 22, 2018
News 12 at 6/NBC at 7

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT)-- What happens to the Lock and Dam will have an impact on what happens to downtown Augusta. But the Federal Corps of Engineers' primary concern cannot be with city or it's downtown economy, it's with the federal law.

While Augusta is trying to figure out what's best for the city, the Corps' plan will keep moving.

The resolution the city submitted during a commission meeting on Dec 18th read in part, "The mayor and commission strongly oppose all options that would reduce the pool level of the Savannah River."

But the Corps outlined one day before in a News 12 interview finding any option that would not reduce the pool was slim. "Any option that we would've picked, including
retaining the structure was going to change how the pool behaves."

The current option on the table is for the Lock and Dam to be removed and in its place a rock dam that would allow endangered fish to swim upstream.

But that's somewhat of an uphill battle, at least for those who care about downtown water economy.

"I care about the fish, but," William Travick paused. "But, if you remember here several years back they had lowered the water level and it damaged a lot of homes around the river downstream in

The current plan would have the water downtown lowered by a least one foot. On what the Corps calls a 'less than average day,' the water could go down even further.

"I'm waiting to see if it's going to make it for the better or for the worse." Travick wondered, "I'm not sure."

He's one of the many waiting to see, what lower water levels downtown will look like this time around. But he'll be waiting maybe for two more months.

Originally, the Corps was scheduled to do a simulation of the levels beginning on Jan 5. Heavy rainfall towards the end of 2018 deferred those plans.

The Corps says in order to do the simulation, the water amount would need to be at 5000 cubic feet, per second, through one point. That's the "low-end average."

Instead, the water is at 4 times more than what the Corps can handle for the simulation. Engineers had to release 22,000 cubic feet from Thurmond Dam since the end of the year.

There's no requirement for a simulation to happen, but in an effort of transparency, the Corps said they wanted to do it. Ideally, Chief Russ Wicke explained the goal is to do before the public comment period closes. The comment period is scheduled to open on Feb 14th, then close after 30days.

But, the Corps says if city leaders work with state partners like the Port Authority and GDOT, on a new plan that proves fish will be able to pass at the site of the Lock and Dam, the Corps could take that plan back to get an approval. The plan must be studied by fish experts then presented by the state, not local leaders.

Until then, federal law requires the wheels for the current plan to keep turning, with the tide.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018
(News 12 at 11)

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT)--The city wants to both save the dam, and the pool downtown but the only way to do that is to stand against the Corps of Engineers' current plan. Today, commissioners presented a letter that says they only support an option that does not lower the pool.

"Let it be clearly known that the city of Augusta is not sitting on the side, watching this happen," Commissioner Sias told a full room in
commission chambers.

Sitting in the audience, eager voices ready to express each of their concerns. A couple of people even with Save the Pool signs. One local advocate, Brad Owens, was already scheduled to speak. Leaders gave him the floor for about 5 minutes where he comprehensively explained the negative impacts of lowering the pool.

But commissioners wanted to be clear--for weeks now, they've been privately working on resolution to give to the CORPS. Instead of many voices all at once, Savannah Riverkeeper Tonya Bonitatibus says it was important to offer one voice as a city.

"We can all kind of begin to come together with one voice, or at least a vast majority of us, for what we want to see in the future."

The Riverkeeper, Augusta Utilities and all commissioners are fighting for option 1, "Retain the Dam with GA fish passage." The current option, to remove the Lock and Dam, would cost $68 million plus an annual maintenance price of $45,000. While option 1, the choice the city supports, will cost $61 million plus an annual maintenance price of $950,000.

In any case, Augusta Utilities tells News 12 local CSRA cities would have to foot the annual maintenance bill.

When it comes to the plan the city is supporting, the Riverkeeper says, make no mistake the Lock and Dam will be altered no matter what.

"The idea that this Lock and Dam is going to be fixed is completely false. It will look differently. There's going to be-- at most, you might keep the gate." Bonitatibus added, "There will not be a lock anymore for boats to pass up and down. So that [idea] is dead. And it doesn't make any sense to spend any time focusing on that."

Commissioners argue it's important to consider option 2 because it has the least negative impact. But the Corps maintains, any option picked is going to change how the pool behaves.

The city came up with its Lock and Dam Letter of Resolution, hoping the Corps will listen and the leave the downtown water levels (the pool), alone.

"So if we go with a united voice, then maybe it'll carry some weight," says Tom Wiedmeier.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

News 12 at 6/NBC at 7
AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) -- Augusta city leaders are pushing back against a plan that would destroy the Lock & Dam and lower the Savannah River levels.

They don't like the plan recommended by the corps of engineers and the commissioners had something to say about it today.

They stand firmly in their decision against the corps. The mayor even called the corps current plan, quote-- "Augusta's most significant existential threat."

Instead, the city wants the first option, that option calls for the corps to keep the damn.

And keep the highest possible level of water at the 5th Street bridge.

The price tag is actually $7 million cheaper in the short run but in the long run, the city will have annual maintenance charges that'll sit at about $1 million each year.

But in any case yes, the city is vouching to save pool downtown and part of the dam at the lock and dam but not the locks.

“The idea that this lock and dam is going to be fixed is completely false. It will look differently. There's going to be at most, you might keep the gate. There will not be a lock anymore for boats to pass up and down. So that is...that's dead. And it doesn’t make any sense to spend any time focusing on that,” said Tonya Bonitatibus, Savannah Riverkeeper.

In the end--we do know this decision is neither in the hands of the riverkeeper or city officials.
But they do hope the corps listens to the community through all of this.

Monday, December 17, 2018

News 12 at 6/NBC at 7
AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) -- A group of people are standing up against the corps' plan to remove the lock and dam, including Augusta leaders.

They also want to protect the pool at 5th street to prevent water levels from going down.

This is the pool, it's the area under the 5th street bridge and it's also the water that will become significantly lower once the corps get rid of the lock and dam and lowers the water there.

In the early 2000s when that happened, it didn't take a boater to notice that it did not turn out well.

So this time around people want to save the pool

Still, waters run deep just beneath the calm under the 5th street, change is stirring.

“We can't leave the pool exactly the way it is,” said Scott Hyatt, of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.

The corps of engineers suggest the best way up is for the water here to come down.

“Let me think how to explain this simply because it's not simple,” said Hyatt as he chuckled.

But here goes Scott Hyatt trying his best to keep it simple.

“About 77% of the time, it's going to be about one foot lower than what we see typically now,” said Hyatt.

Here's what's going on, Congress told the corps fish need to be able to pass here and part of the Savannah River has to be deepened for this to work.

The corps came back with plans that kept the fish the primary goal not the city, or its business on the water.

“Any option that we would’ve picked, was going to change how the pool behaves,” said Hyatt.

With the current option, the fear is once the water drops here, so will property values, recreation and major events on the water.

“There's not going to be large areas of mud up and down the river--will there be a spot or two like that? If they're really shallow now, yes they could become exposed but there's not much of that on the river,” said Hyatt.

Once the fish passage is in, and the water is lowered the corps loses control to raise it, leaving the city without control too.

The corps will slowly start dropping the water level from January 5th until January 10th.

It's a simulation to show the worst-case scenario of water levels. After that, the public can give feedback and that's when the city plans to offer the corps a new option.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

News 12 at 11 p.m.

NORTH AUGUSTA. S.C. (WRDW/WAGT) -- On Wednesday night, dozens of people packed in to the North Augusta Municipal Building to hear from the Army Corps of Engineers, Savannah District, and their plans for the future of the New Savannah Bluff Lock & Dam.

At this point, the plan is just a recommendation. But the recommendation does call for removing the existing lock and dam structure, and affect water levels. Some neighbors say they're worried how the plan would impact about property value and quality of life.

It has been years since the lock structure has been fully functional, but the Corps said they're getting closer to a solution.

"It's not a final decision," said Colonel Daniel Hibner while unveiling the recommended plan. "It's just a preview of what we intend to move forward with,"

That plan involves removing the existing lock and dam, putting large rocks and boulders underwater to form a rock weir, and section off land to form a floodplain bench.

In January, the Corps is planning on showing us how that suggested plan affects water levels. They promise it's nothing like the drawdown in 2000 that caused so much damage.

"We're talking about incrementally bringing it down a few inches at a time, no more than three feet," said Russell Wicke, Corporate Communications Officer for the Corps.

If you want to see how the water levels would look based on all plans on the table, you can do so on this online tool that adjusts projected shoreline levels: http://water.sas.usace.army.mil/nsbld/

With the suggested plan, water levels would drop between one to two feet in normal conditions near downtown Augusta.

"When we bring it down to our lowest level, that's considered a drought flow," said Wicke. "When people see that, that won't be a regular sight when the recommended plan is put in place,"

By late summer 2019, the Corps hopes to release a final decision on the plan and begin construction a little more than a year later. They must begin construction no later than January 2021.

Some people are concerned what the new water level would do to their homes or recreation. In some cases, even a foot can make a difference.

After the simulation in January, the Corps is asking for public comment and feedback on the plans. Then for several months after that, the Corps takes that feed back into consideration while fine tuning a plan. They submit that fine-tuned plan up the ranks before adjusting and making a final decision.

Construction alone costs about $69 million, and the project costs $73 million over its lifetime. That $73 million price tag is less than half of what other plans on the table were estimated to cost.

Many people were wondering how the proposed whitewater recreational course factors into this plan. The short answer -- it doesn't. It's not the Corps' responsibility. A third party group is in charge of designing that. Augusta city leaders approved a plan to have a group from Colorado design the course back in July.

The Corps says they'll give ample notice about the simulation in January. Count on News 12 to keep you updated on this developing story.