The Lock And Dam: Understanding the battle over the structure’s future

The Means Report

We set out to tackle an issue that is dominating the headlines lately-  the Lock and Dam You have read and heard about it just about everywhere else for the past couple of years. What will become of that part of the Savannah River and indeed, the entire waterway in general? Will we have a rock weir? What in the world is that? And no matter the solution, what does this all mean for the future of the river? And I say what in the world is that, folks, out of deference to many of you who have told me, “Look, you’ve covered this story non-stop, “but we’re really not sure what it’s about.” And so that’s our goal for the next 30 minute or so to let you know what’s at stake here and what our community may look like going forward.

Brad Means: I have several people to help me navigate those waters, if you will, beginning with Jorge Jimenez. He’s a civil engineer. He’s gonna talk to us about the actual Lock and Dam, the structure, and what needs to be done or not needs to be done to it. Turner Simkins also here, landowner on both sides of the Savannah, also a key businessman when it comes to the development of North Augusta’s Hammond’s Ferry Community. Turner and Jorge thanks for being with me today. I appreciate you.

Jorge Jimenez: Thank you.

Turner Simkins: My pleasure.

Brad Means: Congressman Rick Allen and Mayor Bob Petit also set to come here on The Means Report. So, I think you’ll come out of this a lot more knowledgeable about all these new stories we keep covering. Let’s look at the Lock and Dam itself, Jorge Jimenez. We’re talking about a structure that has been around since the 1930s and in it’s heyday it helped big boats get up and down the Savannah and it also has helped, has been a portion of the water way where sturgeons need to swim Let’s take a look at the Lock and Dam itself first. Why isn’t it what it used to be?

Jorge Jimenez: Well age. And the fact that there is no longer boats coming up.

Brad Means: Why don’t they use the Savannah anymore? Why don’t those ships come our way?

Jorge Jimenez: Cost too much. It’s much better ways to get materials up to Augusta. And further.

Brad Means: To go back just a few years now you have the Lock’s closed to serve a purpose as a fish passage. What are the fish doing now that’s happened?

Jorge Jimenez: They’re waiting. They can’t pass through the openings in the dam because the water is moving too fast. Then, if you don’t open the lock, they have no way of passing. Some fish pass through the openings. For example, the chad and the few short-nosed sturgeons that make it up here, they can’t get by.

Brad Means: Tell me if I’m correct, the reason the sturgeon love our neck of the woods is all of those rocks at the Savannah Rapids that they breed under, correct?

Jorge Jimenez: Well, yes. They normally breed on rocky shoals.

Brad Means: And we have a ton of rocks here that’s why they love us. Turner Simkins, the Savannah River itself, because after all that’s the star of the show. What’s that body of water mean to you and your family?

Turner Simkins: Gee, that goes back several generations. My grandfather, a good bit of his livelihood was dependent on the river. He, a lot of the old hulks of boats you used to see sticking out of the river were his. He ran barges from Augusta to Savannah. He had sternwheelers for sightseeing and that sort of thing. Our family farm, which has been for multiple generations, it’s located on mostly on the South Carolina side where the Lock and Dam is now. It actually extended all the way across the river to the Georgia side where the Augusta Regional Airport is. But we still have a good bit of acreage also on the Georgia side of the dam just above the park that goes about a mile upstream.

Brad Means: Are you afraid of what might happen to your family’s land and your beloved waterway? Are you anxious about the future?

Turner Simkins: Absolutely. Where we are, where the farm is, my parents have a house there. Obviously it’s more of an emotional thing when it gets that far down the river regardless of whether it’s a dam or weir or whatever. As you move upstream to Augusta, though, that’s where it really concerns me mostly. That’s where I wear my civic hat. The personal side is one thing. That’s not much of an argument for either side of this thing. But as we get into how it affects the development on both sides of the river downtown and on the current recreation that we enjoy there and all the great events that are on the river that contribute so much to our economy, those are all affected by this decision.

Brad Means: Well, I respect the personal side of it when it comes to the Simkin’s family because family history is important. But we’ll switch to that professional side then, Turner and Jorge, and talk about the impact that it could have on development along that river. Go back a few days, Jorge, to the draw down of the Savannah. Is that what the–

Jorge Jimenez: Let’s not do that.

Brad Means: Well, is that what the Core is telling us a rock weir will look like? Because if it is, I can’t think of a whole lot of folks who’d want it.

Jorge Jimenez: Yes, in fact what they are saying they will look like. They mimicked the condition.

Brad Means: What did that do to Hammond’s Ferry and some of the property owners there?

Turner Simkins: It’s tremendous. There’s several hundred million dollars in investment there already and that’s growing, not counting the single family that’s there. And all of the other businesses that will be locating there, office buildings and so forth getting built, and retail and whatnot. There had been discussions during the planning phases for Hammond’s Ferry back, you know, 15 years ago all the way up to now about ferry connections across to the Marriott. That sort of thing. So that we have linkages. We truly are, we’re two states, we’re two cities, but we’re really one community. And connectivity is a big part of that. It would be impossible to access the dock at the Marriott and then most of the South Carolina side’s high and dry if they lower the river.

Brad Means: Can we tweak the rock weir to make those levels a little higher and make some of those venues that Turner mentioned viable?

Jorge Jimenez: It’s physically impossible.

Brad Means: Why? Just because it’s a bunch of rocks and you can’t control them?

Jorge Jimenez: No, because the X amount of water that has to go through, in the past through the dam that we now have, water goes through the dam. Big opening.

Brad Means: Sure.

Jorge Jimenez: Five 60 foot openings. The water goes through there. They can control, that’s how for all these years they have controlled the level. You cannot control the level if the water all has to go over because God only gives you so much.

Brad Means: Amen. But why in the world would we ever have a structure there that can’t control the flow? Unless we want our town to be under water one day. Are you saying the rock weir’s a horrible idea?

Jorge Jimenez: Those are your words. I agree with it.

Brad Means: All right, so they’re yours too? Rock weir’s out. Do you hate the rock weir? Or do you think we can tweak it?

Jorge Jimenez: Well back to your original question, I mean, if we wanna, if we wanna be able to have the level with a modified weir, then the flood control’s gone. So you know, where is the balance? So that’s why we believe that what’s growing is a locally preferred option, what the Core calls option 1.1 which would maintain the ability to use those gates and keep the pool, but also allow the fish passage around it just seems logical. It costs the same as the other one. There’s some inflated operating costs that we believe can be discussed locally. Because according to the numbers that the Core’s providing, they have a total replacement reserve built into the gate one but not the other and then those numbers are, again, we believe that those are inflated and that they can be dealt with locally. You know, on the side of living down there and spending so much time, those gates, when there’s a lot of water like we’ve had these last few months, those gates are wide open. I mean they are, we’re controlling it now to the extent that we can. I mean obviously Mother Nature, she bats last, but we still can control what we can. And that’s gone. And in the end of the summer, there’s so much debris floating down, water hyacinth, all the other weeds and so forth, that’s just gonna build up behind the weir. Silt, trash, I mean after days, extended drought and then all of a sudden we get a big rain, you’ll see beer cans and all sorts of other stuff floating down. Those will collect, get in the pools where the fish are supposed to jump. That stuff flushes out now. Why lose that?

Brad Means: The supporters say that a weir would allow for more flow, Jorge. From an engineering standpoint, would it? And that flow would get rid of all the weeds.

Jorge Jimenez: No.

Brad Means: Why? You just said you can’t control it. It’s river flowing over rocks. That seems like it’d move faster than a pool that sits still because of a dam.

Jorge Jimenez: That is true. But all things around it would be under water. Because now the water, imagine, the Core released over 20000 CFS for a month and a half, just last, this year. All of that water, a good bunch of that water, is going through those openings. Now, you close those because you’re gonna get rid of it. Now the water has to go over the weir. Now that means that the nine feet of water that was going through there have to go through somewhere else.

Brad Means: Turner, are you describing a future that includes a fixed dam and a fish ladder? Is that what I should interpret from what your hopes are for this–

Turner Simkins: Well, effectively the same dam that we have now. It’s the option 1.1. It’s on the Core’s website. It’s effectively the same thing, a weir to the extent that you can move it, you know? If you can pick the weir up and get it out of the way when it’s time to flush things out, that’s it, but you can’t, hundreds of thousands of tons of rock can’t be done.

Brad Means: And how do the fish get through under your scenario, your 1.1?

Turner Simkins: I mean there is a bypass that, again, has been sCored by Noah and by the Core that reportedly works according to their calculations. Also the Lock, which is there now, had been passing it historically to the extent that that could be modified and you can, all the studies that we show, that we’ve read, showed that they could get through that way as well. You can almost objectively have a Plan A and a Plan B for getting the fish upstream. You’ve got a fish ladder bypass and a lock. The, you know, there was a weir built. We have one example in these United States on the Cape Fear River, North Carolina, and they haven’t reported a fish up above the thing yet. But we’re gonna do the same thing here. So let’s do something that at least has a couple of options for the fish so that the Savannah Harbor Deepening people can check their mitigation box. But not at the expense of this community. We’re all for ’em deepening in the Savannah Harbor, but why should we have to pay for it with the loss of tax dollars? We’re letting the boat races, Rigadas, Iron Men, investment downtown, so forth, why are we incurring that expense?

Brad Means: I don’t think a lot of people want life in this area without The Savannah as it stands now. Without The Savannah contributing to our recreational and other needs. And you’re right, it is the deepening of the Savannah Harbor that is infringed upon the habitat of the sturgeon and other fish and have forced us to try to find a way to help those fish up here. And the question is at what cost? Last question for you, Jorge, are you hopeful that this is gonna resolve itself in a way that’s beneficial to our community, that keeps all the good things going that Turner mentioned?

Jorge Jimenez: Yes, I’m hopeful. Because frankly, the letter of the law prohibits them to change from changing the pool.

Brad Means: The Simkin’s family could sue them if they wanted to and probably win?

Turner Simkins: Our city, yeah, anybody could. Anybody could sue them.

Brad Means: Well we’ll see how the government is working with us on this when our politicians join us next, but Jorge and Turner, I appreciate your passion about this, this issue, and I hope that it does come to a good resolution for all of us.

Turner Simkins: Thank you for the opportunity to talk about it.

Jorge Jimenez: Thank you very much.

Brad Means: Absolutely. It is a complicated issue. Y’all made it a lot easier to understand and I appreciate that. Rick Allen is the congressman for Georgia’s 12th Congressional District. Bob Petit runs the City of Augusta as its mayor. What do they think about what’s happening on the river?  When The Means Report continues.

Part 2

Brad Means: Welcome back to The Mean’s Report. We are talking about the Lock and Dam and indeed, the future of the Savannah River. The deepening of the harbor in Savannah, Georgia has led to the need to help sturgeon and other fish make it through our neck of the woods. And what will that do to our waterway? We will find out in the coming months and years. Mayor Bob Petit and Congressman Rick Allen join me now to talk about this from a political standpoint and certainly from how it affects our community standpoint, much as our first guests did in that regard. Mayor Bob Petit, which by the way, apologies to Mayor Hardy Davis. I said going into the break that you run Augusta. Would you mind, would you officially run North Augusta as the mayor? North Augusta, South Carolina’s riverfront, a couple of days ago, South Carolina’s mudflap. You have to have hated the way it looked?

Mayor Bob Petit: I absolutely did I’m not alone. All the citizens of North Augusta, when they saw it, just said what’s going on here? We cannot live with this.

Brad Means: No, Congressman Allen, I know you made it home for some of that back to the district. Were you disappointed in the way the draw down looked? And does that rule out a rock weir?

Rep. Rick Allen: Yes. And you know, we, when the WIN Act was put in place, obviously I voted against that piece of legislation, because they had deauthorized the dam. But I was also told that, hey, the Core’s gotta maintain the water level. It’s common sense. The only way to maintain the pool at 114.5 which we have verified on the day that the legislation was enacted by the U.S geological survey, and we gave that information to the Core, the pool on that day wasn’t 114.5 and that pool had to be maintained. The only way to maintain that pool, and it’s just common sense, is the Lock and Dam.

Brad Means:  Is that what you wanna see done? Maintain that structure as it exists and also figure out a way to help the fish, which might be by way of a fish ladder. I don’t wanna put words in your mouth, Mayor Petit, but is that the solution as far as August sees it?

Rep. Rick Allen: Absolutely, the rock weir has to be lowered to prevent flooding in North Augusta. That creates the situation we had last week. By putting in the Lock and Dam, it allows the pool level to be maintained and a high flows without impacting our city.

Brad Means: From a recreational standpoint, what kind of boats can get around that Lock and Dam, or do you know? If I’m in a canoe or a kayak and I’m coming up the Savannah, something non-motorized, can I get around that big old thing and keep having my fun day or do you know if that hinders it, that Lock and Dam?

Mayor Bob Petit: You’d have to carry the canoe around, I believe.

Brad Means: I mean you kinda would, wouldn’t ya?

Mayor Bob Petit: The lock is closed off for what they say is a structural reason so there’s no way right now to get upstream or downstream around the Lock and Dam.

Brad Means: Who’s gonna pay for all of this? Not only in the short term to get the dam where it needs to be, but also to build that fish ladder and maintain it. You’re talking tens and tens of millions of dollars in potentially as much as a century going forward. How do we get the money for it?

Rep. Rick Allen: The federal government has appropriated or authorized the money to build the fish passage and to do what is necessary if you build a fish passage and you don’t stabilize the dam and if something happens to the dam you lose the fish passage.

Brad Means: And they only give us that money, Congressman, if we help the fish. Right?

Rep. Rick Allen: Right.

Brad Means: So that’s the first thing we need to prove.

Rep. Rick Allen: The reason we’re here today is because of the sturgeon and of course your previous guests have mentioned that frankly, I think there needs to be other options so those fish could get up there because we, I have asked for video, I’ve asked have you tagged any sturgeon? I mean do you know if we’re gonna spend, and I think the latest number the Core posted on this thing, and this is the weir, is 87 million dollars. We’re gonna spend 87 million dollars of tax payer money and we don’t even know if the fish are gonna use the thing. I mean, I couldn’t get any proof. They said they had some sightings, maybe, of some sturgeon but they don’t know if they came through the rock weir. And again, the rock weir that they’ve redesigned, the first rock weir was just like Cape Fear. The new one, you go up a little bit and you rest, go up a little bit and rest, which tells me that they’re thinking maybe they’ve got a modified Cape Fear as well. I don’t know. But certainly, you know, we need to make sure the fish can get upstream. The best way to do that, and I’ve got some other ideas on that. I’d like to run that by the Core. And the fact is the only way to maintain that pool is, 80 years ago those folks were really, really smart about how they controlled water. It’s a brilliant piece of engineering. And like I said, you know, there are even spaces they left in there to put turbines in to generate electricity.

Brad Means: But we don’t need it for ships anymore. Doesn’t that take away a lot of its usefulness?

Rep. Rick Allen: Oh, absolutely not if we’re gonna maintain the pool.

Brad Means: But can’t other things maintain the pool? Well the answer is yes, other things can maintain the pool, but it might be detrimental to the shoreline and recreation–

Rep. Rick Allen: It is, yeah, as described before, it has gates on the end that go down for debris to pass. Gates in the middle, three of them, that go up and again, those gates, I was down there. I usually stop by there, if I can get in in daylight. I was there a month ago. The river was the same level on both sides of the dam. That tells me that they put a rock weir in there, you gonna get as much as a five to six foot change in the level of the river. It will be impossible to maintain any type of boat docks or anything because you know, and in a drought, how much is the river gonna go down?

Brad Means: Mayor Petit, you’re gonna need some support at the federal level, some of Congressman Allen’s colleagues on the hill. What have you heard from South Carolina senators or other lawmakers about being on board with your, with what North Augusta favors?

Mayor Bob Petit: We’ve talked to Congressman Wilson extensively on this issue, and he’s with us. He and Congressman Allen worked together closely on this, members of their staff are in contact with me every week on this issue and we’ve talked to the senators, we’ve talked to their staff to get, let them understand the importance of this to our local communities.

Brad Means: If we go with one of these local options, folks, we’re gonna need the support, at least on the Georgia side, of either the transportation department or the Port’s Authority. Do we have friends there?

Mayor Bob Petit: Yes, I mean, honestly our local DOT commissioner, Don Grantham, understands the problem. He and I have talked about it extensively. He’s talked to Georgia DOT and I think pretty much everybody agrees, if we’re gonna maintain the water level, which the law says we have to do it, we’ve got to keep that dam structure and fix it and it’s gotta be maintained and we’ve gotta have somebody to operate it.

Brad Means: Is this a partisan issue? Do we need to fix it before 2020 in case Trump doesn’t win?

Rep. Rick Allen: No, this is a bipartisan issue. I have had, well, the chairman of the democratic. Chairman Merdes, of the Democratic Party of Richmond County, at a rotary club meeting said if you need any help on this, well Greenbaum said we’re with you on this and it is a two state, bi-cameral, bipartisan issue.

Brad Means: Mayor Petit, we don’t live in a world where our lawmakers and our Core of engineers is gonna let North Augusta be muddy and shallow water, do we?

Mayor Bob Petit: I can speak for the representatives, members of the council, me, I can’t speak for the Core of engineers. They’re seem to be making their decision based on what they perceive to be, in my opinion, a flawed basis for their analysis and that’s what the law says in terms of maintaining the pool. We’re fighting as hard as we can using every tool available to us to make sure that the Lock and Dam is repaired and the fish passage is put there. Let me just also point out, South Carolina shares that river. It’s not only a Georgia River, it’s a South Carolina River and if something’s done, South Carolina has to be agreed to that solution.

Brad Means: Well, I’ll ask you the same question, Congressman, to close us out today. This is gonna end well for our community, isn’t it?

Rep. Rick Allen: Well, we’re gonna do everything we can to make sure that if the current law is, I mean obviously we’re gonna have a battle over that, okay? And to tell you, Brad, I met with the Core the first time in April 2015 on this thing.

Brad Means: How were they? Flexible?

Rep. Rick Allen: They came to me. They asked for the meeting. And they said we have a problem.

Brad Means: 15 seconds.

Rep. Rick Allen: Yeah, and of course the problem was we need to fix the dam. And I said well, I’ll see what I can do to help you. The next thing I know, I get legislation and they deauthorized it.

Brad Means: Well I know that it is a complicated issue going forward. We have heard the needs of our community. We’ve heard what’s possible and not possible, perhaps, at the federal level. So thank you gentlemen, for your work on everybody’s behalf and we appreciate your time. Mayor Bob Petit, Mayor of North Augusta. Congressman Rick Allen, Georgia’s 12th congressional district.

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