They’re ugly. They’re prehistoric. They’re protected. And they’re on their way.
Here come the sturgeon. There goes the neighborhood.
Well, that’s how some people react to a Corps of Engineers plan to restore habitat for the endangered fish by replacing the Lock and Dam near Bush Field with a rock weir and fish ladder to give the creatures access to Augusta’s front yard. Doing so would lower the pool at the city center by three feet, shrink the width of the Savannah River, and turn many expensive riverfront homes into much less expensive mud-front homes.
To be fair, the sturgeon—specifically the shortnose sturgeon—have pride of place. They’d only be returning to spawning grounds they claimed millennia before human beings even existed. But when Europeans finally arrived here in the 1700s, they decided that the river – and everything in it—existed for their convenience. They discovered it made an excellent sewer, washing all their waste conveniently downstream, out of sight and smell. It made an excellent highway, floating deer and beaver pelts, tobacco, and cotton down to Savannah.
But the river often forgot it existed for our benefit. In wet seasons it flooded. In dry seasons it shrank to a trickle. As Augusta’s population grew, the river grew rank with run-off from streets and sewers. Clearly, the river needed controlling.
And we were just the ones to teach it that. We dug a canal in the 19th century to give our boats safe passage around the river’s shoals. We built levees in the early 20th century to keep the river out of our streets. We built a lock and dam at New Savannah Bluff just south of the city in 1937 to maintain river level at Augusta. We built a huge dam and lake at Clarks Hill in the 1950s to control flooding, generate electricity, and create a watery playground.
While making such “improvements” to the river, no one really thought much about the river’s actual inhabitants. The Savannah, like other coastal rivers, once ran silver each spring with shad returning from the ocean to spawn. Shortnose sturgeon came up too, making their way from their brackish wintering waters near Savannah to the shoals upstream of Augusta to lay their eggs. But year by year human activity diminished those numbers, and the fish that had flashed in the waves pretty much disappeared after the river turned muddy brown with silt from cotton fields and runoff from city streets.
Adding to the sturgeon’s fate, caviar became all the rage at the end of the 19th century, and sturgeon were harvested by the ton to satisfy the nation’s appetite. The prized Atlantic sturgeon grow to be more than 10 feet long, weigh hundreds of pounds, and contain thousands and thousands of eggs. Their smaller cousins, the shortnose sturgeon, were less desirable but shared the same habitat and ended up in the same nets. Their numbers plummeted up and down the east coast.
A population of shortnose sturgeon still spawned in Augusta’s shoals every year, making up for some of the losses—that is until 1937 when the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam was constructed. This project of the New Deal stabilized the pool level at Augusta to encourage commercial river shipping to Savannah. The shipping never returned, though—trains and trucks carried freight more economically than barges could. In stabilizing the river pool at Augusta, the dam also locked the shortnose sturgeon out of their spawning grounds. The remnant population found a few spots downstream with enough silt-free gravel to provide some spawning, but the species barely hung on. In 1967 the shortnose was declared an endangered species to protect it from extinction.
Sturgeon have swum earth’s waters for 70 million years–and they look it. Instead of scales, these underwater dinosaurs have rows of bony plates, called scutes, which act as a kind of armor. They have mouths under their heads with four whisker-like barbels to detect food on the bottom. They range on the east coast from Canada to Florida. Both Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon spawn in fresh water, but while Atlantic sturgeon spend much of their time in the ocean, most shortnose seem perfectly content in their home rivers and may never go to sea.
Sturgeon mature slowly but live long lives. Shortnose sturgeon can grow to 4 feet long, weigh 25 pounds, and live over 60 years. Impressed? Compared to their Atlantic sturgeon cousins they are guppies. Researchers recently discovered an Atlantic sturgeon in the Hudson River about 100 miles north of New York City. It measures an unbelievable 14 feet long, weighs perhaps 800 pounds, and may be 90 years old. It looks more like a submarine than a fish. No such behemoths swim the Savannah.
Researchers estimate the Savannah River population of shortnose sturgeon at 2,000 adults, a perilously small remnant of the original numbers. Late maturity and infrequent spawning slow recovery for sturgeon populations. Here near the southern extremity of the sturgeon’s range, males take up to three years to mature; females take six. If they survive to maturity, females spawn every-other-year at most; many spawn only every fifth year.
Meanwhile, 200 miles downstream, Savannah Harbor is being deepened from 42 to 47 feet. The deeper channel will allow a new class of huge ships coming through the expanded Panama Canal to sail into Savannah’s port facilities, 18 miles upstream from the ocean. This deepening, however, allows salt water to intrude farther up the Savannah River than ever before, destroying habitat for birds, plants, and fish–including the endangered sturgeon. By law that destruction must be mitigated.
And that, of course, is where the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam comes in. A fish ladder there would allow the sturgeon—not to mention shad and striped bass—to swim past the dam to their historic spawning habitat, the shoals. Whatever losses the fish endure in Savannah would be more than made up for with the miles of ideal habitat that would open to them. That, at least, is the theory.
But the devil is in the details, and exactly what will become of the Lock and Dam structure and the pool it creates at Augusta has unleashed a legal battle pitting concerned citizens and legislators of two states against the Corps of Engineers.
While people wrangle over these complicated matters on the shore, the fish that caused the stir in the first place swim silently in the murky water. The sturgeon, frankly, don’t much care– dam or weir, high pool or low–just so they can get back up to the shoals.
They’ve got a lot of spawning to do.
The River and the Town Uneasy Neighbors
William Bartram saw the Savannah River at Augusta for the first time in May 1773. He wrote in his journal, “The village of Augusta is situated on a rich and fertile plain on the Savannah River; the buildings are near to its banks, and extend nearly two miles up to the cataracts, or falls, which are formed by the first chain of rocky hills, through which this famous river forces itself as if impatient to repose on the extensive plain before it invades the ocean…”
President George Washington visited the same falls during his Southern Tour on May 20, 1791. He wrote in his journal, “These falls (as they are called) are nothing more than rapids. They are passable in their present state by boats with Skilful hands, but may at a very small expence be improved, by removing a few rocks only to straighten the passage. Above them there is good boat navigation for many Miles; by which the produce may be, & in some measure is, transported.
Charlie Benson, son of Berry Benson, the “Man on the Monument” on Broad Street, grew up on the banks of the river on Bay Street in the 1880s and ‘90s. He boated, swam, fished, waved at steamboats, ferried passengers, and wrote all about it years later. He described the flood of 1888: “The great, granite flagstones which had paved the sidewalk around the station were piled on top of each other, and mud covered everything. The water must have been over four feet deep. Down at the corner of Jackson st. a great hole had been washed, 10 feet wide, 2 or 3 feet deep, and 50 feet long, or so. . . The flood had abated several days, leaving a deposit of about 4 inches of yellow mud on everything. Walking the sidewalks was like keeping to the trail after a deep snow in a narrow path in which each one takes advantage of the tracks left by the one ahead. . . . [T]he odor of spoiled grain and groceries remained in the air perhaps for months.”
In dry summers, the river sometimes shrank to a trickle. Steamboats suspended operations until rain made the river navigable again. Roy Simkins’ grandfather talked of summertime walks across the river. Jean Strickland has a photograph of Charles Guy Cordle standing in the middle of the almost dry river bed on Oct. 15, 1916.
But, of course, the river’s periodic floods made the biggest impression. One story handed down in Jean’s family comes from 1908: “At the time of the 1908 flood my mother’s family were visiting relatives in New York. My grandfather Bush had been in Europe on cotton business. He arrived home and waded inside, where he thought he saw a child with long blond hair, floating face down. Panic-stricken, he reached for the child, then he realized it was my mother’s life-size doll, which had not been taken on the train trip to New York. A postcard to him from my grandmother says, ‘Walton, have you done anything about getting the house cleaned up?’ She had her children, ages 8, 3 and 6 months, with her. I have a feeling she didn’t come home until the house was cleaned.”
The dams at and Clarks Hill (1954) 22 miles upstream of Augusta and New Savannah Bluff (1937) about 14 miles downstream of the city pretty much tamed the river, controlling how much water came in from upstream and how much was let out downstream.
Article appears in the June/July 2021 issue of Augusta Magazine.