Hello Fellow River Lovers,
As I write this, it’s been a busy day at Savannah Riverkeeper wrapping up the year and preparing for the next. But 12 years on this job have taught me that busy days are normal days when you’re trying to save one of the largest and most important rivers in the Southeast. Every day, governments, communities, businesses, and individuals make decisions that impact your waterways. That means we must constantly defend and push for the best outcomes for the river and the 1.4 million who drink out of it daily. But nothing worth fighting for comes easy, and this year has been no exception.
All of our efforts stand on the pillars of protection, restoration, and education, and protection is first for a reason. Advocacy is at the heart of our work. It’s the most important thing that we do and what I’m most passionate about. Fighting for the protection of the entire Savannah, and those relying on her, must always be our primary goal. I’d like to share a bit about a few of those efforts this last year.
Our Clean Water Act case with the Southern Environmental Law Center against pipeline giant Kinder Morgan has garnered national attention by moving all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The lawsuit aims to hold the company accountable for the cleanup of its 2014 oil spill in Belton, South Carolina. They allege that the spill was not a “direct discharge” into the creek, but instead went into the groundwater. We know that 300,000 gallons of gasoline continues to leak into the waterways, and must be cleaned up appropriately. As Waterkeepers pledge to do, we will persist until these polluters are held accountable for the damages to our natural resources and taxpayers.
Protecting the river also means taking on issues that are controversial, as with Augusta’s Lock and Dam. This year Savannah Riverkeeper has weathered constant attacks on our reputation for involvement in the complicated dam removal, as well as well-funded misinformation campaigns led by special interests. But good advocates stand for what’s right, not what’s easy. We are resolute in ensuring the project improves the outlook for endangered sturgeon, makes the most of the impending changes by creating opportunities for the future, and ultimately satisfies the community that uses this river.
In Ridgeland, SC, an illegal landfill marketed as a recycling facility caught fire and burned for six months, spewing alarming concentrations of arsenic, cadmium, selenium, and and other toxins and carcinogens into the air and ditches flowing to the nearby Okatie River. We worked closely with SC DHEC and local officials to assess the extent of the ongoing disaster, and identify ways to slow the contaminants’ flow off-site. This coming legislative session, we will pursue the regulatory changes needed to ensure this type of offense is never allowed to happen again.
The second cornerstone of our organization, restoration, is the act of fixing what is impaired, whether small or large-scale. In 2019 more than 650 Savannah Riverkeeper volunteers have kept 25 tons of trash out of our communities and waterways through cleanups and service events throughout the watershed. Savannah Riverkeeper works with local leaders like the Marshal’s Office, stormwater and utilities departments, neighborhoods, universities, and local businesses to amplify our impact. Efforts like these are a crucial part of our mission. Getting people outside and engaging with their waterways is a gateway to lifelong conservation. It doesn’t just improve the river, it strengthens our communities.
Two of Savannah Riverkeeper's long-term projects will significantly restore and protect the Savannah River. Efforts are underway to restore the Savannah River’s natural flow between Augusta and Savannah. As the non-federal sponsor of the project, Savannah Riverkeeper is laying the groundwork for one of the largest river restorations in U.S. history. We are working to ensure that $12.5 million in dedicated restoration funds from the Savannah Harbor settlement are leveraged to make a lasting positive impact on the watershed. And thanks to a seed grant from Georgia EPD, we are working to build a publicly accessible website for water quality data collected in the Savannah and Ogeechee River basins. Savannah Riverkeeper is leading these collaborative efforts with government from both states, and other conservation partners.
Now in its second year, our Veterans for Clean Water program has built a dependable base of regularly engaged volunteers and added an in-house laboratory for water samples. VFCW volunteers, mostly in kayaks, collect, process, and communicate water quality results from 17 popular sites around the watershed to let users know when bacteria levels are a threat. They test the water throughout the summer and prior to large swim events like IronMan and Gatorfest. VFCW also maintains trash traps at 3 different locations, and carries out scrap tire pickups, and takes on restoration projects beyond the scope of the average volunteer. With growing partnerships within and beyond the environmental community, this program is changing veterans' lives and improving the Savannah River. Program coordinator Truck Carlson was honored to be a speaker at TEDx Savannah, and recently won the Georgia Water Coalition’s prestigious Clean 13 Award for his efforts. These achievements in such a short period of time give me great hope for an even stronger program in 2020.
Education includes spreading the good word of conservation throughout our communities. The Savannah Riverkeeper staff is dedicated to that in so many ways. We’ve appeared at speeches, schools, civic clubs, and community events. Our social media reached 1.75 million people this year. Our staff has been tapped by local and national media over 200 times for interviews, appearances, and stories (including the cover of Savannah Magazine's Life on the Water issue)!
In the lower river area, Outreach Coordinator Dave Mewborn has engaged 250 new volunteers for cleanups and on-the-water outings. We hosted two sold-out Roast on the River events in Savannah and Augusta. For our second annual One River membership drive, we took a team approach to fundraising, and with your help, raised nearly $10,000 and 100 new members for the organization.
Lastly, but of course not least, this year I had the absolute honor of marrying my best friend on the banks of the Sun Koshi River in Nepal in the presence of several friends, family members, and a dozen fellow Waterkeepers. While we were abroad, we participated in river cleanup service projects, a rally against egregious pollution and injustice by a coal plant, and provided training and support to Waterkeepers in Bangladesh. As a longtime council member, and recently elected Waterkeeper Alliance Board of Directors member, I am grateful to get to fight for clean water alongside some of the most selfless and courageous advocates in the world and to serve those who need it most.
But my wish for the holidays, or a wedding gift if you will, is for you to continue supporting Savannah Riverkeeper in the coming year. Join or renew your membership, make a donation, come to an event, or tell a friend, coworker, or family member about our work. Click here to support us.
Reach out if you’re interested in volunteering for a cleanup, event committee, water quality monitoring with Adopt-A-Stream or VFCW, or a hands-on project to serve the watershed. Don’t hesitate to report suspected pollution by calling our office at 706-826-8991 or toll-free at 844-263-1415. It’s easy, and it can make a huge difference. And as always, thank you for being a friend of the river.
Your Savannah Riverkeeper,
P.S. Be sure to follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter at @savriverkeeper. If you have feedback to share, send us a message. If you're on the water boating, fishing, paddling, swimming, sailing, or whatever it is you do, post a photo and tag #saveoursavannah. I love to see all the ways you enjoy the water and the unique, diverse communities on every part of the Savannah River!
P.P.S. Join us at our Roast on the River in Savannah January 18, and in Augusta March 21, for oysters, lowcountry boil, local craft beer, and more fun! Tickets are on sale now at savannahriverkeeper.org and they support our mission of protecting, restoring, and educating the river basin.