Deepening the Savannah River channel runs up against salinity issues and city politics

My freshman composition students at Armstrong are writing persuasive papers right now. As I always do for such assignments, I’m reminding them repeatedly that it’s impossible to craft truly effective arguments if writers ignore — or don’t understand – the best arguments offered by those with other views on controversial issues.

I sure wish all the proponents of deepening the Savannah River understood this basic rhetorical principle.

They seem routinely surprised that serious people are taking their own independent and serious approaches to the issue, weighing the projected benefits against the known costs and the uncertainties, and coming to their own defensible conclusions.

I brought up a number of uncertainties in a column in early December after actually reading (imagine that!) significant portions of the Tier II Environmental Impact Study. Here’s what I said in part (emphasis added):

Uncertainty is expressed at many points.

For example, the potential for erosion was studied along the channel, but not in the River Street area “since the shoreline is already protected by structures.” Given issues of structural integrity in recent years, I’m not reassured by this omission.

In some hurricane scenarios, the corps anticipates slightly higher storm surges, topping out an additional nine-tenths of a foot at the I-95 bridge.

How many more areas would be affected by the additional surge? According to the impact statement, Chatham County officials “indicated that since the impact amount is less than the 1-foot contour interval available for the high ground areas, they would not be able to identify any locations that would be adversely impacted by the small increase in surge height.”

And this regarding the likely increase in salinity because of the deepening: “In light of the uncertainties that exist in the predictive tool, [the corps’ technical decision-makers] went on to recommend that chloride levels be monitored at the city’s intake should a harbor deepening occur to ensure that the predicted level of impact is not exceeded.”

The issue of salinity in the city’s water intake (the City of Savannah provides water for much of the metro area) also caught the attention — as it should have — of city employees who oversee the system. Their concerns are outlined in “City: Port plan must protect water supply” from the SMN a few days ago. I was concerned by the uncertainty in the EIS, but apparently the Corps’ study did not even use the most up-to-date information in its model, according to city officials cited in the article.

Those who oversee the water supply essentially want a $40 million solution in place before the harbor is deepened. If the Corps’ projections turn out to be incorrect, this would seem to be the only way to assure users of the city’s water of the fundamental safety of the system.

Today’s editorial in the Savannah Morning News, “Clear it up”, suggests that the city staffers have sent the wrong message in their objections. (The SMN editorial page, btw, has been touting the need for a deeper channel since long before the Corps’ complex EIS was completed.) The editorial says that such a serious stand should only be taken by leaders higher up in the chain: the mayor and aldermen or acting city manager Rochelle Small-Toney. Well, those leaders have little credibility with many of us right now. Given their preoccupation with the failed city manager search, I don’t trust them to make decisions regarding the safety of our water.

The editorial ends by calling for city staffers and the Corps to work together to present “a unified front.” But united fronts all too often hide problems lingering in the back.

The concerns that I noted above from my column would all be classified as “known unknowns,” if I can be permitted to borrow some interesting phrasing from Donald Rumsfeld. In other words, we know where some of the uncertainties lie in the Corps’ analysis. But I’m also concerned about the “unknown unknowns.” What are the effects that we have not considered? Are there any that have so far not been anticipated at all? What other fail-safes should we be insisting on?

I would love to see a broader and more balanced discussion of some of these issues. Many supporters of the deepening act like it’s a no-brainer. But it’s not a no-brainer, and dismissing or glossing over legitimate concerns will only arouse more suspicion and distrust from those who do not now support it.

[UPDATE at 2:31 p.m.: “Mayor, council renew support for harbor deepening” in which the acting city manager and members of council appear to chastise knowledgeable, senior city employees for making clear, professional statements to the press.]

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