Savannah River Reservoirs Seeing Good Growth From Water Willow Plantings

Water willow is now providing great bass cover along the banks of Lake Russell and Clarks Hill.

Will Martin | July 16, 2022

Native water willow (Justicia americana) originally planted along the shore of Lake Russell provides shelter and food for newly hatched bass and other sport fish. It also helps reduce shoreline erosion. The willows, planted in a joint effort between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, spreads naturally. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo by Billy Birdwell)


Georgia’s eastern flank offers some of the best freshwater fishing in the state, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) works to improve bass habitat at the Savannah River reservoirs. The USACE operates three major lakes along Georgia’s border with South Carolina: Lake Hartwell, Richard B. Russell Lake and Clarks Hill Lake. Administratively, the lakes are located within the Savannah District of the USACE.

Though all three Savannah District lakes consistently produce fantastic fish, Lake Hartwell tends to garner the most attention—and the most anglers. More than 10 million people visit Lake Hartwell each year, making it the second most-visited USACE lake in the country—only its neighbor, Lake Lanier, sees more visitors. 

Lake Hartwell has hosted the annual Bassmaster Classic a whopping four times, including the 2022 tournament, which took place back in March. 

But with Lake Hartwell so often in the spotlight, it’s easy to miss important news about the other two spectacular bodies of water. Important work is underway at Russell and Clarks Hill lakes to improve bass habitat, and it’s big news that the serious angler ought to care about. 

Biologists Continue To See Success With Water Willow

Perhaps the biggest story to come out of the Savannah District recently has been the successful introduction of the native plant species, water willow, to provide key bass habitat along shorelines and prevent bank erosion.

“There has been a 20-year effort at Lake Russell to introduce native aquatics,” said USACE Savannah District Fishery Biologist Jamie Sykes. “It has been a slow process, but we’re seeing some encouraging results now.”

“Water willow, in particular, has done very well,” he said.

Water willow, or Justicia americana, is an aquatic plant that grows at a maximum depth of 4 to 5 feet, providing great bass habitat along shorelines and an alternative to hydrilla, an invasive aquatic plant species associated with AVM.

AVM, or Avian Vascular Myelinopathy, is a disease caused by exposure to a toxin produced by cyanobacteria, commonly called blue-green algae, that grow on the leaves of submerged aquatic plants like hydrilla. The toxin kills plant-eating waterbirds when ingested, and poses a serious health risk to humans and pets. Dogs are especially vulnerable to poisoning, and several have died after swimming in water containing the cyanobacteria. 

Water willow is a great alternative to hydrilla for shoreline bass habitat because it is an emergent aquatic plant, which means that its foliage grows primarily above the waterline where troublesome cyanobacteria cannot colonize leaf surfaces. 

“For years, water willow would survive where we planted it, but we weren’t seeing the natural expansion that we’d hoped to see,” Sykes said. “But in the last three or four years, we’ve really seen a lot of expansion of this plant.”

And that’s good news, especially at Clarks Hill, where an intense effort to remove hydrilla has meant potential habitat loss along its shorelines. 

“Luckily, we haven’t found any hydrilla at Thurmond (Clarks Hill) in the last two or three years,” Sykes said.

And all signs seem to point to a bright future for water willow on the lake.

An aquatic plant survey is scheduled to take place in September at Clarks Hill, and it will provide the final word on whether hydrilla has been eliminated and water willow has proved to be an acceptable substitute.

The USACE manages plant nurseries that cultivate water willow at both Russell and Clarks Hill lakes. 

Sykes said that he and his colleagues have been able to produce two or three crops of water willow at these nurseries each growing season, with each crop consisting of as many as 2,000 individual plants. 

“Georgia DNR has also built a very nice greenhouse at its Social Circle office,” Sykes said. “Through that greenhouse and our own nurseries, we’ve been able to plant several thousand water willow plants every year at Lake Russell, alone, and it has become an annual management activity for fish habitat.”

Dean Sartain, a summer volunteer at Thurmond Lake, inspects young water willows in preparation for transplanting into that reservoir to provide safe habitat and feeding areas for newly spawned bass and other sport fish. Workers at Clarks Hill Lake continue their fledgling water willow nursery efforts. This successful and expanding program grows these native plants for use throughout the reservoir. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo by Billy Birdwell)


Richard B. Russell Lake To Get A New Set Of Pipes

When Lake Russell was impounded back in the mid-1980s, a system of oxygen diffusers was installed to improve water quality in the area above Russell Dam, and by extension, the headwaters of Clarks Hill. 

“Every 20 or so years, these O2 systems need to be replaced,” Sykes said. “The original system was replaced back in 2000-2001, and thanks to funding provided by the recent infrastructure bill, we’ll be replacing the O2 system at Russell again in the next 12 to 18 months.”

“It’s a very big project,” he said. 

Lake Russell’s O2 diffusion system works much like a bubbler in a home aquarium, but it’s much larger, installed deep underwater, and instead of air, releases pure oxygen that the USACE trucks in as needed. 

“The objective is to provide O2 to the deep portion of the lake, which is devoid of oxygen during the summer,” Sykes said. “You’ve got plenty of cool water there, but no O2 during stratification. So, when we provide O2 with the diffusers, we improve water quality at Russell, resulting in excellent tailwater below Russell Dam in Lake Thurmond (Clarks Hill),” Sykes said. “Russell flows directly into Thurmond, and the area below the dam is an important area for striped bass.”

The USACE installed a similar O2 diffusion system at Clarks Hill in 2012.

“Lake Thurmond’s diffusers are located about 5 miles upstream from J. Strom Thurmond Dam in the Modoc, South Carolina area of the lake,” Sykes said. “They provide (striped bass) habitat in the lower third of the lake during the summer months when striped bass habitat is limited.”

The oxygen diffusion systems operate between June and November of each year.

“We turn them on when the conditions warrant it, usually in June,” Sykes said, “and when the lakes cool and mix again in the fall, we turn them off. Needless to say, the fishing can be pretty good in close proximity to these systems. There are certainly two striped bass fisheries at Thurmond now: one below Russell Dam and another at the lower end of the lake.

“People are learning how to fish these areas in the summer,” Sykes said, “and on the lower end of Thurmond, there has been quite a bit of striped bass angling. Guides from the Augusta area, especially, have enjoyed fishing the O2 system there.”

The author thanks Kenneth Bedenbaugh, Natural Resources Program Manager (Hartwell Dam and Lake), and Glenn Kowalski, Natural Resources Program Manager (Richard B. Russell Project), for contributing information used in this article.

For more information about work currently underway in the Savannah District, please visit the following link: Savannah District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  

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