Judge says dam near Augusta can’t be removed if water level will fall

Credit: AJC File photo

Credit: AJC File photo

AUGUSTA — A federal court says the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can’t demolish a dam downriver from Augusta if it doesn’t maintain the current water level.

U.S. District Judge Richard Mark Gergel ruled that the Corps of Engineers’ proposed plan to remove the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam doesn’t follow the requirements of a 2016 law that requires the river to be maintained at its current level. The Corps had proposed to remove the dam and build a series of rock weirs across the river, arguing that it’s required to improve fish habitat.

But governments, industries and private property owners who built around the elevated river level provided by the dam opposed the plan. The city of Augusta and the state of South Carolina sued to block the removal after the Corps formally decided to go ahead with the plan in October 2019. That followed a trial drawdown.

“In February of 2019, we all witnessed the damage caused when there was a drawdown to simulate water levels if the proposed plan moved forward,” Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis told The Augusta Chronicle. “The simulation caused the seawall to bend and demonstrated what would happen if one of Augusta’s greatest resources was demolished.”

“Our goal has been to preserve South Carolina's riverfront and the river's pool as we know it, and this court decision is a victory for our side in achieving those goals."

- South Carolina state Sen. Tom Young

Russell Wicke, a spokesman for the Corps’ Savannah District, which had proposed the plan, said the agency is reviewing the decision and noted the matter is still under litigation.

South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson said in a statement the order requires the Corps’ Savannah District to “develop a mitigation plan that maintains the water levels to avoid impacts on water supply and recreation.”

The Corps of Engineers has been tasked as part of a plan to deepen Savannah’s harbor to provide a fish passage so sturgeon can migrate to historic spawning grounds upstream.

“Our goal has been to preserve South Carolina’s riverfront and the river’s pool as we know it, and this court decision is a victory for our side in achieving those goals,” South Carolina state Sen. Tom Young, an Aiken Republican, told The Aiken Standard.

Young said three possible developments that could come next include an appeal by the Corps, a long-term legislative solution or the Corps could develop a different alternative for consideration.

North Augusta Mayor Bob Pettit said the key outcome was to delay construction of the weirs, which was scheduled to begin in January. He said the ruling is likely to be appealed, but he would like to see Congress renew funding for the lock and dam, originally built in 1937.