Main and Mulberry Podcast – Tonya Bonitatibus, Savannah Riverkeeper

The Savannah River is undergoing the largest restoration on a river system in U.S. history. “The river can’t speak for itself, so that’s my job,” says Tonya Bonitatibus, who joins the podcast to tell us all about the Savannah River and those involved in its “Restoration, Education, and Protection!” A non-profit organization, the Savannah Riverkeeper and its many volunteers do a lot of good caring for this 10,000 square mile watershed.


00:12 Anna Bell: Hello, welcome to another episode of Main and Mulberry. I’m your host, Anna Bell, and today I’m really excited to have with us the Executive Director for the Savannah Riverkeeper in Augusta, Georgia. Tonya Bonitatibus. Tonya, thanks so much for taking the time to be on the show with us today.

00:30 Tonya Bonitatibus_: Thank you very much for having me.

00:31 AB: Yeah, we’re super excited to really pick your brain today and learn a lot about the Savannah River. First, let’s kick this off though, kinda learning about the Savannah Riverkeeper though. Can you give us some history, some background on the organization? You’re non-profit, right?

00:48 TB: We are. So Savannah Riverkeeper is a non-profit organization that is… We’re based on Augusta, like you said. We are based on the Waterkeeper model, which actually started on the Hudson River in the ’70s. The short story is that you had a bunch of Shad fishermen who couldn’t sell their fish anymore, and it was because the river ran the color of whatever GM happened to be making in their cars that day, and General Electric was killing millions of fish a day through some of their entrainment with energy. So they got together and created a coalition of advocates and citizens, and… That was replicated throughout the nation. Savannah Riverkeeper, we’ve been here since 2001. We were founded by a group of scientists and leaders throughout the watershed, so from North Carolina to Savanna, that wanted to focus on one thing and make a substantive difference. They were in the Sierra club and Nature Conservancy, so they focused on a wide variety of things, and they really wanted to be able to focus in and so now almost 20 years, we’ve been doing just that.

01:53 AB: That’s so cool. Wow. And Tonya, how did you start getting involved with Savannah Riverkeeper?

02:00 TB: So I fell into it, actually. I was working at Augusta State University, about to have my second child. And I knew I did not wanna stay home primarily anymore.

02:09 AB: I understand that.

02:12 TB: So the executive director in the River Keeper at the time went to church with me and I kinda walked up, I didn’t know what it was and said, “Hey, you should hire me. I have a marketing degree and almost a Biology degree. And wouldn’t it be fun if you brought me on board?” And from day one, I’ve been obsessed. I love it. [02:32] ____ Not only with River Keeper, but I’m on the Waterkeeper Alliance board and get to work with keepers all over the world, and everyday is just awesome.

02:41 AB: How cool. Okay, so there’s more than just the Savannah Riverkeeper then. There’s… For other waterways?

02:46 TB: Yeah so, there’s 380 of us worldwide.

02:49 AB: Wow.

02:50 TB: Yep.

02:50 AB: Very cool. And you’ve lived near the river for a little while now?

02:54 TB: I Have. I actually still live on the piece of property my great-grandparents bought in the ’40s, and I am less than three miles from the river now. So it’s definitely flowed through my veins since the very beginning. So the Savannah River is very, very near and dear to my heart.

03:10 AB: You could easily call it home, I guess.

03:12 TB: That’s right.


03:15 AB: That’s awesome. And so the Savannah River. I’m really excited to kinda focus on it because, as you were kind of touching on earlier, Savannah Riverkeeper really focuses on preserving and protecting the river. And so can you kind of give us some facts about the river? A lot of our Main and Mulberry listeners have probably not yet had the opportunity to come and visit. And so maybe you can kind of deep dive there, and tell us a little more about the river and how it affects everybody in the area, right?

03:44 TB: Sure. So I will start by saying it’s one of the most important rivers in the foundation of the United States. In fact, it was long before we had much going on here, the Savannah River served as the protection piece between France and Spain coming up and taking over Charleston. So we’ve been at it for a minute. But…

04:09 AB: Wow. That is really cool.

04:12 TB: So the Savannah River starts in North Carolina in the Nantahala National Forest. And it is the state boundary between Georgia and South Carolina. It’s 400 miles long, and it’s got… It’s a 10,000 square mile watershed. So a watershed is anywhere where a drop of water hits the ground and eventually runs into the river, so…

04:30 AB: Wow, that’s saying something. That’s a lot of ground to cover.

04:34 TB: It is a very large river. And it’s kinda split in half, so the top half are lakes. So we have Lake Hartwell, Russell and then Strom Thurmond Lake, which is the largest lake east of the Mississippi River. And then once you get to Augusta, to Savannah, it becomes a free flowing river, so there’s no more dams. And that really changes how people engage in it because there’s a lot of economic drivers. The fact is, you can’t have a municipality, you can’t have a city, or you can’t have a business really that functions without water. And so that’s why the Savannah River has continued to be that work horse that is not only for the founding of the United States, but still to this day, we even have the fourth biggest port in the United States down in Savannah.

05:19 AB: Wow. Okay. That’s a really big deal. And I kind of wanted… I saw something before we talked. I got on your website. Tried to learn a little bit about you guys, and it said something about, you represent 1.4 million people who rely on the Savannah River. And you were touching on that in numerous ways, that the river affects the people in your area, right?

05:44 TB: That’s right, so any time that you turn a faucet on in your house, that water is either coming from the ground to the surface, coming from a river. So there are… Yeah, 1.4 million people that are not only relying on it so they can take a shower, flush the toilet, drink the water, but also the industries, your paper plants, your nuclear industry, the big ports. All of these guys, not only do they need the water to pull in so that they can make their processes, they also discharge back into it. Which starts getting… You start getting to really funny calculations because it’s a 400 mile long river, everybody wants to use it the way that best fits…

06:21 AB: For them.

06:23 TB: But the problem is that if you pollute it too much or if you take too much, then you start affecting people all the way… Way up in North Carolina can affect what happens in Savannah and vice versa, and that’s one of our biggest jobs actually, is trying to get South Carolina, Georgia, the mountains and the sea, to all see each other in the same boat, and that is… It can be pretty difficult.

06:46 AB: Oh, I bet, I bet. You’re talking about a lot of people here, and it’s something the average Joe probably doesn’t… You don’t really think about just how much water consumption in a day you’re probably using, like you said, flushing the commode and turning the faucet on; these are things we don’t think about very often, but it’s important to think about… You’re touching on some of the kind of initiatives that you’re working towards, maybe we can talk about that for a minute, what the Savannah Riverkeeper is really working towards right now in those initiatives.

07:18 TB: Sure, so we work under three cornerstones, restoration, protection, and education. From a restoration standpoint, last year was better than this year ’cause of COVID, but on average, we take about 24 tons of trash out of the waterways every single year now. We have a staff of 6, so it’s largely volunteer-based, but it’s a huge initiative.

07:42 AB: How are you doing that? Tell us how you’re doing that.

07:44 TB: Well, one, we have a Veterans for Clean Water Program, which is a really cool initiative, and students, anybody who wants to get together with us, we tackle different areas and take out whether it’s plastic bottles, which are the bane of my existence at this point, but the plastic bottles or any trash gets into… If you throw trash out in your car, throw it, that ditch, the next time that it rains, it’s gonna go to the next creek and the next time in rains it’s just gonna go to the river. So all of that litter ends up in your water. So that’s… There’s never a…

08:24 AB: No time for the litter bugs then.

08:29 TB: It’s largely based on volunteers; it takes people coming together and being willing to give a few minutes to make a difference for the greater good of society. And then the other piece, the education, that’s what we’re doing today… Right, talking about [08:44] ____. We do that a lot. And then protection, so if you love or hate us, you probably know about our protection work, and put very bluntly, if you come after my river and start polluting it and causing issues, I will come after you. That you get that.

08:57 AB: I love it. [laughter]

09:00 TB: So that’s kind of the cornerstone of what we do is making sure that the permits that are issued or people who are doing illegal activities are held responsible for those actions, and especially in a river that’s shared between two states, who neither one seems to understand how they’re supposed to regulate it, becomes very important because unfortunately the river cannot speak for itself, and so that becomes my job.

09:24 AB: That’s so true. So it sounds like as the executive director, you’re not only working on the river, you’re working on land too, to try to help and protect.

09:34 TB: Yeah, I do a lot of that land, depending on what time of year it could end up being DC or in the different legislative sessions in South Carolina or Georgia or working with local municipalities. We do a lot of neat stuff to try and educate the public and the elected officials. We work all on any of the grounds that, like I said, if it rains and it flows into the river, that’s our area, and it’s pretty big.

10:07 AB: So Savannah River is a river that you can actually fish and swim, it’s a very active river, right? Can you touch on that for a minute for us?

10:16 TB: Sure. The top half, the big lakes have some of them that you could do a bass slam here, which is a big deal, but you have great fishing access, you have great recreational access, especially depending what time of year. Of course, it goes up and down, but some of the greatest and most beautiful lakes, like I said, east of the Mississippi River. And then once you get below Augusta, it really shifts, so it turns into a much more rustic river; there’s less than 60 houses in a 200 mile stretch. It’s like stepping back into time. We have giant alligators, we have…

10:51 AB: Look out.

10:53 TB: That’s something we’re pretty proud of. We have massive amounts of animals, wildlife, bird life; you can really step back and you could be out on that river and not see anybody for days, which is something you can’t do in a lot of places.

11:09 AB: That’s true. Yeah, that’s so true. And so important to protect those areas.

11:12 TB: That’s right.

11:15 AB: Yeah, so I’m really curious to talk about… I know this year has been a strange one in a lot of ways, but under normal circumstances, do you host a lot of events throughout the year?

11:29 TB: We do. Actually, one of the things we were not expecting with COVID, which did make us… All of our big events, we do a huge oyster roast, for example, in both Savannah and Augusta, and it’s really neat because the oysters are… They come from the basin, from the river area, so do the shrimp and everything that we serve, so we really try to keep it local, but.

11:50 AB: How cool is that. So you don’t have to drive down to Florida to get some oysters then?

11:55 TB: No, we actually… We pride ourselves in trying to make sure that we’re continuing the work of the people that have been doing oyster catching and shrimping for generations and trying to keep those economies going. But we didn’t really see… With COVID, when everything shut down, we kind of expected that that would mean we would shut down too. What happened is everybody was now stuck in their house where meant that they wanted to get out. So we saw far more people using the river than we have in many, many years, which means that… Well, it would have been nice to just stay in our house, a lot of the water quality sampling and stuff that we do like that, but it became even more important to make sure because we have even more people using it. We’re making sure that it’s safe for them.

12:41 AB: Sure, absolutely. Oh, that’s really cool. That is something that I’ve noticed too. It’s been nice seeing my neighbors get out more this year and kinda really use… A lot of us have had to do staycations, I guess, and use what we have and how cool if you’re in the Augusta area to utilize the Savannah River and the beauty around you. So that’s really cool. But water sampling, that sounds cool. Is that something that you do often?

13:08 TB: We do… So we have approximately 60 spots throughout the Savannah River that we test. Most of those specifically during the summer season, and there are areas that the state does not test, but there are places where… I grew up here as a teenager, you hang out on the rocks, that’s what you do, [13:25] ____ So that’s one of the places that we test; so we go along and once a week we put out on the swim guides, is what it’s called, and there are over 6,000 spots worldwide, so it’s used by waterkeepers all over the place. And the idea is to give you education to say, “Hey, after a big rain event, especially in a city as old as Augusta and Savannah, the fact is there ends up a lot of sewage in the water, which can make you sick.” So empowering and engaging and looking at this app and making sure if you’re going to go out that the water has been tested and safe is one of the easiest ways to make sure that you’re being safe. And it’s not to scare people away from the water, it’s to help them make better informed decisions.

14:12 AB: Sure. If you’re not educated, you just don’t know. Right?

14:16 TB: That’s right. And like I said, it’s all over the place. It’s mostly on beaches, so anybody, it doesn’t matter if you’re coming to the Savannah River or not, you should definitely look at and download the app and make sure that you know what’s in your backyard.

14:32 AB: Yeah, very cool. You touched earlier on your volunteers and how important they are. I’d love to kinda talk about that a little bit more, ’cause you are a non-profit, and I’m sure volunteers are vital. Can you talk a little bit about that, your volunteers? I know this year might be a little different than others, but how important they are, and funding, where that kinda comes from.

15:01 TB: Sure, so the volunteers are vitally important; we cannot do our work without volunteers, everything from cleaning up trash, to helping us design applications that we use on online, to fundraising. One of the weird or a little bit different things about Savannah Riverkeeper and all riverkeepers is we work urban and rural, because we’re following a river, right” So a lot of the non-profits will be based in one city, and we can’t really do that, so it’s really important that we engage people in these different communities and make it so that they are empowered to have their own voice. So we deal with about 1,000 volunteers every year. This year’s been a little sad because of COVID, but we’ve figured out the social distancing clean-ups now, so we’re good there.

15:49 AB: There you go. There you go. Spread out, right?

15:53 TB: Right. Just keep them at arms lengths. You’re outside, you’re fine.

15:58 AB: That’s awesome.

15:58 TB: And then from a funding standpoint, a majority of our funding comes from individual memberships. They start at $35 up, so these are people throughout the basin, throughout the river that believe in our mission and want us to continue. We do get foundation support, and we’ve started working with Georgia and the states, and have gotten a little bit of state funding, but it pales in comparison to the good work that a $35 membership can do. In fact, we use that a lot in the office when we’re choosing what to do. I’m like, “This takes three memberships. Is it worth it?”

16:33 AB: There you go. There you go. That’s cool, that’s good to know. You know that your members, that their dollars are really being put towards that good use. That’s great. Kinda tell us, I guess, as we wrap things up, Tanya, what are you really focused on right now? I was skimming through your website again before we hopped on the call, and I did notice that earlier in the year, the Core of Engineers were calling, I guess, for a removal of one of the retaining walls in the Savannah River, near you guys and Augusta, is that a big deal? Is that something that’s going on right now? Or maybe you can kinda tell us what you’re focusing on to date.

17:14 TB: Sure, so one of the most exciting things, and we don’t talk about it enough, but I’ll talk about it today, we’re actually undergoing the largest restoration in US history on a river system. So between Augusta and Savannah during the Great Depression, the river was straightened significantly; they cut 40 miles off and it was to make it easier for the barges to get to Augusta. The barges didn’t actually use it, so it didn’t do a lot of good, but what it did was it cut the bends out, and the bends and the swamps are the liver and kidney system of the river. They’re very, very important for the cleanliness of the river itself.

17:49 AB: I love that. Hold on, you said, “Liver and kidney,” right?

17:51 TB: That’s right, liver and kidney. By putting that river back together and by putting those bends and you shouldn’t drain a swap, actually, you should actually keep it full, it’s very important. But what you’re doing is you’re adding resiliency from drought, you’re making it safer for the industries to continue, and helping keep the pollution in check. So that’s a really important thing. We’re working on a dam here in Augusta, and also the retaining wall, which are relics left over again from the 1930s and the retaining wall itself is from the 1910s. And these were things that were done to make it easier for barges before cars and a lot of the railway was accessible; we used the rivers as highways, and so those relics still exist and have begun to serve different functions in a couple of different ways, but really need to come out and allow this river as in all rivers, if you let them function the way that they’re supposed to, then they actually can help protect your resiliency as a community, and it’s really kind of a big focus for us is to make sure that we want… It doesn’t do any good to make everybody not use the river, don’t touch it, it has to say pristine, in order to actually really save it. What we’ve got to do is make sure you can function and still meet the needs of our community, so that it can continue to do that in perpetuity.

19:18 AB: What a cool job. Tanya, this is really awesome. Was that restoration something that was kind of in the works and the plan for a long time, or something you guys had to really lobby/fight for?

19:29 TB: That’s my baby. So we went to court with the corps of engineers over the harbor deepening in Savannah. And one of the big mitigations, pr part of that settlement, was that everybody was meaningfully going to participate. So that’s the one thing I wanna have done before I retire, is to really meaningfully put this river back together so… [19:49] ____.

19:51 AB: Very cool. And it’s time, right? It’s time. It sounds like it, that’s awesome. Well, Tanya, we really appreciate all your insight. I’d love for you to tell our listeners though, where they can go to learn more about the Savannah River, and the Savannah Riverkeepers. Where’s the best place they can go for that information?

20:12 TB: So we have a website, that is updated on a regular basis, but I would say if you’re on social media, Facebook and Instagram are most constantly updated. But if you’re interested, you wanna volunteer with us, you can go on to the website or Facebook and sign up, so you’ll start receiving regular emails. And then hopefully, if you pay attention to the news, you’ll see us in there. We like to try to get the Savannah River in there as much as possible. But yeah, please reach out to us, give us a call if you’d like, again, that’s on the website as well.

20:48 AB: That’s awesome. Tanya, thank you so much for your insight and your time today, we sincerely appreciate it, and I’m excited to have learned something really cool and really new today. So, thank you.

21:00 TB: Thank you for reaching out to me. I appreciate it.

21:01 AB: Yeah. Alright, guys. We hope you enjoyed this episode of Main and Mulberry. Until next time, I’m Anna Bell.

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