The future of the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam has been a divisive issue in Augusta, North Augusta and Richmond and Aiken counties, and recent developments have done little but made those divisions more apparent. But the opportunity to work together remains open. We have an obligation to come to the table and give our best faith effort to compromise and do good for the future of our communities.

After months of public meetings and conversations between local, state and federal leaders, the Army Corps of Engineers announced its much-anticipated decision on the future of the lock and dam. The preferred option chosen is not what the majority of stakeholders wanted to see, even those who were starkly divided over the potential options.

The plan selected will create rock weirs across the river and, predictably, remove the deteriorating lock and dam. While Savannah Riverkeeper advocates for the removal of the current lock and dam structure, there are still serious issues in the Corps' plans that need to be addressed – river levels are projected to drop 2 feet and the historic lock and dam park will be gutted to make room for a flood plain.

Efforts to save the ailing structure have hampered progress and distracted the community from creating solutions that the Corps might have accepted that stand to benefit the entire region. It is imperative that we come up with a potential solution that the Corps' will accept.

The lock and dam was purposed to allow barge traffic for commercial shipping along the river, but there is no longer any use for that. Since 1980, the structure has been in “Caretaker” status with the Corps of Engineers, and with the deepening of the Savannah Harbor, the dam has become an impediment to more than water flow.

The dam created the pool between Augusta and North Augusta, but that wasn’t a consideration for the Corps until we advocated to change the law in 2016. That was the first time the pool became federally protected and ensured Augusta and North Augusta had a bargaining chip at the negotiating table.

We have a small window of opportunity that isn’t perfect, but it is workable. Fortunately, it means we have a framework for negotiation. The time is now for the community to work together on a compromise that leaves the upstream pool higher, saves the park and doesn’t cause more flooding. A realistic alternative that meets the law – the only thing the Corps will accept – has always been a higher rock weir. Their report proves it. But there are infrastructure changes that can get us to an acceptable compromise.

The City of Augusta had the foresight to hire one of the world’s leading experts in adapting dams for recreational and multi-functional uses, and that project is sitting on the shelf. It is time for local leaders to call them back in, put their efforts to use and devise an alternative that works.

They should look at the Corps’ proposal and seriously negotiate for a modification while the window for change is still open. Don’t be fooled; Augusta and North Augusta riverfronts are not doomed and whitewater is not dead – but saving the lock and dam structure is. Why fight to keep a failing and antiquated structure, costing millions of dollars win-or-lose?

This issue has been framed by many to be only about saving the dam or tearing it down – but that is a false dichotomy. We have the opportunity to keep the pool higher, to save the fish, to bolster recreation, and support the local economy. It’s time we put differences aside and iron out a plan that benefits the entire community and protects our valuable resources.

The Army Corps of Engineers will hold a public meeting on the recent decision regarding the lock and dam from 6 to 7:30 p.m. today at the Boathouse Community Center, 101 Riverfront Drive, Augusta.


Guest columnist

Tonya Bonitatibus is the executive director of the Savannah Riverkeeper.