Guest post: Why saving the Savannah makes dollars and sense

Editor’s Note: This post was written for Balancing the Basin by Tonya Bonitatibus, Riverkeeper and Executive Director of the Savannah Riverkeeper, headquartered in Augusta, Ga. The Savannah Riverkeeper is a non-profit organization funded by individuals and foundations that share a commitment to creating a clean and healthy river.

There’s no doubt about it, the Savannah River is the lifeblood of our communities. She stretches more than 400 miles, forms the state boundary between Georgia and South Carolina, and drains more than 10,000 square miles of land.

Her reach is almost perfectly cut in half—the top half largely lakes, including Thurmond Lake, the largest lake east of the Mississippi. Her bottom half is free-flowing and largely industrial. Where she meets the ocean is the fourth-largest container port in the United States.

The Savannah binds those of us relying on her waters. Both upstream and downstream users rely on one another to be responsible stewards of the water. Our economies are inseparably tied to the river, our drinking water comes from her, and for many of us, her waters supply us with our recreational activities.

Without her we wouldn’t be here. Making sure she stays healthy and clean is not only the right thing to do, it is unquestionably something we must do. Our health and our economic interests rely on it.

In just one day, the Savannah supplies more than 1.4 million people with fresh drinking water; receives and dilutes more than 18,000 tons of waste from industries and municipalities; and carries more than 7,000 containers through her port. River-dependent businesses and cities have supporting companies and industries, which are dependent on their services and products.

An aerial view of the Savannah Harbor, taken July 2012. USACE photo by George Jumara.

An aerial view of the Savannah Harbor, taken July 2012. USACE photo by George Jumara.

Cities like Savannah, and now Hilton Head and Bluffton, S.C., are increasing their dependence on the Savannah River due to the loss of the fresh aquifer water. Being at the end of a 400 mile river, it is extremely important that those upstream protect the resource as much as they can, and in turn it is just as important that Savannah respect the needs of those upstream when considering major changes in its varied uses of the river, such as deepening the harbor.

With each major river user there are a number of supporting businesses reliant on their success, such as the trucking companies transporting our exports to the port. The Savannah River has such a broad spectrum of uses, and a balance must be kept to ensure all needs are being met adequately.

It’s cheaper to treat clean water. One of the greatest things about a river is its ability to clean itself. A river’s wetlands and swamps serve as filters; its ground water recharges clean water; and the bugs, plants and fish eat and filter out pollutants. The longer a river flows, the cleaner it can become, and clean water is cheaper for all of us to use. Our industries rely on the river to dilute and clean their waste, and we rely on the river to supply us with healthy and safe drinking water.

Much of the pollutant load into the river comes from “point sources” such as industries. However, a large percentage of the pollutants that enter our waterways come from “non-point” sources, such as run-off from our roadways, storm drains, or backyards. This cocktail of pollutants not only can detract significantly from the health of the river; it is in direct contrast with the filtering and cleaning effect that non-developed land has.

By ensuring that we are doing what we can to reduce the negative effects of our run-off, we help keep the costs of water treatment down. This allows industries to have access to the waste load they need while ensuring the health of our waterways for all to enjoy. The industries are obliged by law to do their part to ensure the health of the waterways; we must all make sure we are doing what we can as well.

The Savannah is a public resource. She belongs to all of us, and with ownership comes responsibility. Many of us work at the river industries or the port, or the supporting businesses that rely on the Savannah for their water and waste dilution. All of us rely on her water for our homes. But according to a 2012 report by Environment America, she is the fourth-most toxic river in the United States.

It is vital to our economy that no one use more than their fair share, and that they return what they use as much as possible. A healthy river is the cheapest to consume and use. We own the river; we should take pride in her and realize how important her health is to our lives. It is up to all of us to protect her. Learn more about the Savannah Riverkeeper at

~ Tonya Bonitatibus, Riverkeeper/Executive Director for the Savannah Riverkeeper


About U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District oversees a multimillion dollar military construction program at 11 Army and Air Force installations in Georgia and North Carolina. We also manage water resources across the Coastal Georgia region, including maintenance dredging of the Savannah and Brunswick harbors; operation of three hydroelectric dams and reservoirs along the upper Savannah River; and administration of an extensive stream and wetland permitting and mitigation program within the state of Georgia. Follow us on Twitter @SavannahCorps and on
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