Savannah Riverkeeper, Tonya Bonitatibus: ‘Without water, we don’t exist’


The Savannah River is one of the most important bodies of water, both historically and to this day, in the United States. The 400-mile-long charging waterway flows from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean. It boasts a rich history dating back to the earliest known humans in the U.S. and was created through the shift in tectonic plates creating a mouth to the ocean.

In early times, the river was the hub of trade, a centralized location in the U.S. where people came to sell their goods. Now it is one of the largest ports in the country, a source of drinking water, a vehicle for waste disposal, and an active force in power generation. It also happens to be one of the most toxic rivers in the country.

I recently sat down outside of the massive New Savannah Bluff Lock & Dam in Savannah’s Lock & Dam Park, with the executive director for the non-profit Savannah Riverkeepers, Tonya Bonitatibus. Bonitatibus, a native of Augusta, to talk with her. She now raises her own children on the same river she currently represents as the Riverkeeper, protecting, promoting, educating, and restoring a critical piece of the nation’s water system.

[bctt tweet=”Without water, we don’t exist. – Tonya Bonitatibus, Savannah Riverkeeper” username=”GreenActionNews”]

One of her first memories of the river was riding along in a canoe with her father, noticing snakes hanging in the trees and wondering what key that holds to the wildlife and health of the river itself. You can almost see the passion for the river and its inhabitants flow through her as she describes the history behind how the river got its name.

“The Westos Indians served as a protective force between Charleston and St. Augustine. So, this was when Charlestonians first arrived; they had to set up a barrier between them and the Spanish downstream. So, we were that natural kind of a dividing point. The problem was that Charleston had been quite rude to the Westos Indians. They had taken advantage of them in a number of different ways, and the Westos were kind of like, ‘We’ve had enough,’ and there was a revolt,” said Bonitatibus.

Bonitatibus told me that the Charlestonians hired the Savannah’s which were a Creek Indian, to actually come in and replace the Westos.

But, the funny part about that is, well the not so funny part is, they were very very successful. In fact, the last remnants ran away to the Barrier Islands in Georgia, St. Catherine’s, Sapelo, and there are a couple that can still be found in Jamaica today, but that’s the last of them,” said Bonitatibus.

The Savannahs were hunter-gatherers, the Westos were an agricultural community. Bonitatibus described how this difference served as an effective barrier between the two. However, the nomadic culture of the Savannahs posed a problem for their long-term survival.

“The Savannahs constantly roamed with the herds. So, they never really protected Charleston from St. Augustine. The river is named after a Native American tribe that was here for a very very short period of time,” said Bonitatibus.

Since that time the river has served as a vital port and traveling mode for freight, as well as the location for the blossoming of the Industrial Revolution. However, with economic and industrial growth, often comes environmental degradation, which was the case for the Savannah River.

Photo Credit: Michael Kline Photography https://www.facebook.com/arete.liminality

In the 1800’s, to save Augusta from future flooding and grow room for barge flow, the once free-flowing river became peppered with reservoirs, levees, and lock and dam systems. Though this helped industry, it destroyed ecosystems.

“But when you cut a river like this, you kill it,” Bonitatibus stated through strained emotion.

The upper two hundred miles of the Savannah River are now just lakes and in the 1950’s the Army Corps of Engineers attempted to fix this by straightening over forty miles, ultimately cutting off its liver and kidneys. The Savannah Riverkeeper organization, along with the Corps, are currently taking on one of the largest restoration efforts in U.S. history to give the river back its life. But that isn’t the extent of the damage plaguing the system of waterways.

Augusta was once a bustling hub for textile mills, and then, during WWII. It also was the prime maker of bombs for the war. Toxins were steadily dumped hand over fist into the waterways, and historical relics from the bomb factory are still being found in the river’s bed. However, if you think that is a deterrent for more pollution into the river, you would be wrong.

Photo Credit: Michael Kline Photography https://www.facebook.com/arete.liminality

Beyond the chemical factories that still run along the banks, when Yucca Mountain, the facility in Nevada that held toxic waste, was closed down, the government began shipping those toxins to the Savannah River sand banks where it sits only ten miles from the communities along the river. Due to the historical experience of bomb making, the river was decided as the best place to store Yucca Mountain waste from all over the country, severely affecting the river and the community.

From the toxins in the fish that the community catches and eats for survival, to the deep seeded lead poisoning that runs rampant in the community due to the water contamination, the mistreatment of the river is not just affecting the wildlife, but the communities surrounding it. This is where the River Keeper comes into play.

Bonitatibus is held as the speaker for the river and she, along with her organization, looks to make change through three broad principles, restoration, protection, and education. From cleaning over ten tons of trash a year from the river, defeating the Kinder-Morgan Pipeline, to having strong media relations, and lobbying to Congress, this organization is out to change and protect the water and the people from further destruction.

Bonitatibus shares these deep thoughts with us:
“I’m not an environmentalist…. I view it as helping people survive. Without water, we don’t exist.”

Action Alert: If you want to get involved in the Savannah River project or one in your own community, you can look for any of the 298 Riverkeepers stationed all over the world. While some fight for restoration, others fight for the life of the communities around them. Water is life.

Please Comment: I’d love to hear what you think about the Savannah River and the effort being taken to restore it. If you are involved in water restoration with Riverkeepers in your neck of the woods, please tell me about your experience in the comment section below, Thanks!

Stephanie Kuklish

Stephanie is a well-versed freelance writer and self-proclaimed environmentalist and activist hailing from Washington DC. She boasts ten plus years of writing experience for various publications and holds an MBA with a concentration in Sustainability. Her environmental passions range from climate change to sustainable living and she is constantly in search of the truth to share with her readers.


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