As politicians fight about the future of the lower Savannah River, the waterway’s biggest booster is guiding a boat more than 140 miles upstream on a journey she hopes will lead to better protection for the river.
Savannah Riverkeeper Tonya Bonitatibus is holding community meetings and kayaking with locals. She’s camping on sandbars some nights. And she’s fighting her way through whatever nasty weather blasts the river making up most of the border between South Carolina and Georgia.
She says the trip, so far, has been fun – and worth it. Bonitatibus, who grew up along the waterway, said she’s prepared to listen to anyone who wants to give their take on the river, and she’ll let folks know why the Savannah should be saved from pollution and overuse.
“We are at a turning point on this river,’’ Bonitatibus said. “We’ve got so many different people using it. Industries need it to dilute their waste. Lakes need it to keep their economies for residential use. You’ve got the harbor issue at Savannah, and Hilton Head Island needs it for drinking water.”
Bonitatibus, accompanied by a mummified Atlantic sturgeon that is her mascot for the trip, launched the journey Thursday night from Tybee Island, Ga. She reached Hardeeville late Sunday afternoon as the weekend’s stormy weather cleared out. Heavy rain and winds had slowed the boat trip Saturday.
Her two-week trip, also a fundraiser for her nonprofit group, will include stops in communities on both the Georgia and South Carolina sides, before winding up in Augusta. A large meeting is planned Friday in Allendale County. The Savannah Riverkeeper organization, for which Bonitatibus works, focuses on protecting the waterway.
“I wish her well,’’ said S.C. state Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, who has been upset about a recent state decision to permit dredging the river to deepen the port of Savannah. “Anything that will raise awareness about the natural resources of South Carolina like this is good.’’
Running from the mountains to the Atlantic Ocean, the Savannah River is perhaps the most visible waterway in Georgia and South Carolina because it acts as a border between the states. Filled with rocky shoals for much of its course, parts of the Savannah also contain large reservoirs that attract boaters, anglers and residents from both states. A rare system of tidally influenced, freshwater marshes still exists on the river’s lower end.
The Savannah River port dredging has been challenged by Bonitatibus’ group and other environmental organizations, which say it will degrade water quality, kill fish and ruin rare marshes. Hutto and other South Carolina lawmakers spent last week denouncing the Department of Health and Environmental Control decision to allow the dredging and blasting Gov. Nikki Haley for her involvement.
The Savannah River has other, longstanding challenges. It is filled with industries near the city of Savannah that have sucked up much of the oxygen in the lower waterway. Some fish below the Savannah River Site nuclear weapons complex are unsafe to eat because they are radioactive. Additionally, lake users are often at odds with those living downstream over how much water to release through dams. And the Vogtle nuclear plant in Georgia sucks up tens of millions of gallons of river water daily.