The future of the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam is not set in stone, but a recently announced decision by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which was promptly answered by a lawsuit from the state of South Carolina, has public officials and stakeholders gearing up for battle.

The Corps recently announced it had made a decision on the Savannah Harbor Expansion fish passage project. That decision, known as Alternative 2-6d, would remove the 82-year-old lock and dam and construct a rock weir across the river, along with a floodplain bench on the Georgia side, which would lower the pool level in the Augusta-North Augusta area by an average of 2 feet.

The Corps has been tasked with constructing a fish passage that would allow shortnose and Atlantic sturgeon to get to their historic spawning grounds at Augusta Shoals. The project is part of the larger Savannah Harbor Expansion Project.

Interpreting the law

Interpretation of the 2016 Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act is one of the points of disagreement between the state and the Corps.

The WIIN Act states that the pool created by the lock and dam must be maintained "for water supply and recreational activities, as in existence on the date of enactment of this Act." The Act was passed on Dec. 16, 2016; according to the lawsuit filed by the state, the pool level that day was 114.76 feet.

"Members of the Congressional delegations of South Carolina and Georgia have informed the Federal Defendants that the stated Congressional intent of the WIIN Act is that the pool level on the date of the enactment of the WIIN Act, i.e. approximately 114.5 feet … must be maintained in any effort by the Corps to modify, remove or replace the (New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam)," the lawsuit reads.

During a public information meeting held by the Corps on the evening of Nov. 13, Col. Daniel Hibner addressed the interpretation of the law.

"It's important that everyone understands that we at the district level are given guidance based on the Army's interpretation of legislation. The Army's implementation guidance is clear about how we are to proceed, and the guidance is publicly available on our website. This approved project design meets the legislative requirement, which we have conferred with our chain of command and discussed with all of the leaders representing the public on this project, as well as the Army general counsel," Hibner said.

North Augusta City Council member Eric Presnell attended the meeting Nov. 13 and said the colonel's statements about interpretation stood out to him.

He believes the matter will be resolved in court. He cited the WIIN Act, as well as the December 2016 pool height of 114.5 feet.

"I don't see how there's any other clear interpretation of it," he said.

State Rep. Bill Hixon, R-North Augusta, said it's almost like the Corps interprets things one way, and those in South Carolina interpret things the other way.

The "only way for us to have the correct interpretation (is) by a federal judge," Hixon said.

"If the folks in South Carolina and North Augusta want the correct way it's supposed to be, we aren't going to get it if we don't try to defend ourselves," he said, later adding, "you've got to go to the starting line before you ever finish."

State Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, whose district covers the riverfront in Aiken County, said he believes it is one of his obligations as state senator to protect the rights of property owners along the river.

"The federal law required the Corps to maintain the pool for recreation, water supply and navigational activities as the pool was in December 2016," Young said. "We don't believe that the Army Corps' proposed alternative does that because it will drop the pool level anywhere from 2.5 to 5.5 feet depending on the water flow."

Hibner stated Nov. 13 that it would be impossible to construct a fish passage while maintaining a water level of 114.5 feet.

"Despite disagreement over interpretation, a more formidable obstacle exists before us," Hibner said. "That is, with the introduction of any fish passage, river system physics do not allow for water levels identical to conditions observed in December 2016."

Hibner addressed a higher rock weir during his presentation Nov. 13, introducing the opportunity for a locally preferred option.

He brought a to-scale poster that showed the difference between three alternatives. 

At the top of the poster was "today," and a height of 114 feet. Below it at 112.9 feet was Alternative 1-1, which would have retained the lock and dam structure with fish passage around it, but has been called an invalid option by the Corps. Also on the chart were Alt. 2-6a at 112.4 feet, and Alt. 2-6d at 111 feet.

Hibner pulled out an ink pen and held it up to the poster, comparing the height difference between 2-6a and 1-1. That difference is about half a foot.

"(Alternative) 2-6a can get you to just about the length of my pen from what you would get if you maintained the lock and dam and did a fish bypass around it," Hibner said.

He also addressed the prospect for a locally preferred option.

"This modification though, (Alternative) 2-6a, would require cooperation between a few agencies, but that's not at all out of reach, and here's how it would work. Changing to a higher weir alternative before construction needs Georgia and South Carolina to work in concert with the project's non-federal sponsor to form a locally-preferred plan, or an LPP," he said.

The non-federal sponsor is the Georgia Ports Authority.

"Changing to a higher weir alternative after construction is also still possible, but we have to go about it slightly differently. A non-federal entity would need to pursue modification through a permit…" he said.

Hibner added a modification to weir height would also increase nuisance flooding frequency.

'We are not going to lay down and give up'

Community leaders in Aiken County are planning to continue the fight to save the pool.

"It's a little disappointing that they haven't taken seriously the impact of lowering that pool and what it's going to do to our community," said Terra Carroll, president and CEO of the North Augusta Chamber of Commerce.

"It's more than just for recreation, it's more than the impact on an endangered fish," she said. "This is drinking water for our city; this is economic development for a lot of our industries, and I hope everyone will stay on top of getting them to do the responsible thing to make sure it doesn't detrimentally impact our quality of life.

"We're going to continue to fight. To what degree, I'm not 100% sure yet; but the North Augusta Chamber will continue to be an advocate for the right thing being done, along with the Augusta Metro (Chamber) and our local municipalities, as well."

Hixon said he has had as many people in Augusta thanking him for advocating for a higher pool level as he has in North Augusta.

"We're going to defend our side. If Georgia wants to help us, we're going to let them," Hixon said.

Young said the fight is all about saving South Carolina's riverfront.

"I represent all of Aiken County's riverfront along the Savannah River and, as state senator, I intend to represent my district and constituents in doing all that I can to preserve the riverfront as we know it," he said.

"The Army Corps peer review report questions the alternative that the Corps has chosen," Young said. "There are other alternatives for fish passage that will work. We have tried for months to reach a solution that preserves the river pool. The Corps' alternative relies on flood easements obtained from property owners in the 1930s.

"Those easements reference the pool's height at 114.5 feet. The Corps' preferred alternative will not keep the pool at that height. There are multiple legal issues which we believe support South Carolina's position. We are not going to lay down and give up. We need concerned citizens on both sides of the river to stand with us in doing what is right for the Central Savannah River Area."

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