Safekeeping the Savannah River

Photo by Beau Kester

Savannah Riverkeeper’s Dave Mewborn takes Savannah magazine out on the water

Lined with mainstays of industry, Ocean Highway doesn’t show much promise of natural wonders. On one side of the road, a collection of six white crosses marks the site of the 2008 Dixie Crystals plant explosion. Traffic picks up around the entrance to the monolithic International Paper plant as its stacks exhale deep sighs of white smoke. Shipping containers, stacked high like colorful Lego blocks, flank the road to the Georgia Ports Authority, humming with activity as it ushers more than 2,000 vessels a year into the port of Savannah. Past the old Port Wentworth City Hall, a dappling of bait shops comes into view, and the familiar paper mill smell in the air is suddenly tinged with salt water brine.

Photo by Beau Kester

Right before the Houlihan Bridge with its Erector Set-style riveted beams, a small parking lot faces the Savannah River. The pavement ends at a modest single-story building, painted white with haint-blue shutters. The headquarters for Port Wentworth’s volunteer Marine Rescue Squadron also serves as the satellite office for Augusta-based grassroots citizen advocacy group Savannah Riverkeeper.

Inside, with its wood-paneled walls covered in maps, the space feels like a mix of adventure outpost, American Legion Hall and marina. While the Marine Rescue Squadron saves lives on the river, Savannah Riverkeeper works to save the river itself.

Savannah Riverkeeper outreach coordinator Dave Mewborn. Photo by Beau Kester

For Savannah-based Riverkeeper outreach coordinator Dave Mewborn, the hours spent outside of the office are the most valuable. Always ready with a life vest, kayak and paddle, the Savannah newcomer believes that in order to make citizens care about the quality of their water, you have to show them all the beauty and adventure their waterways have to offer. When he does confine himself to a desk, Mewborn is plotting out group paddle trips and community litter cleanup days, creating opportunities for locals to connect with their environment and their neighbors.

An estimated 1.4 million people drink, bathe and wash their clothes in water from the Savannah River, which originates in Blue Ridge Mountain headwaters more than 201 miles northwest of Savannah. Restoring the river’s water quality, protecting waterways from pollution and degradation and educating the public are Savannah Riverkeeper’s priorities. At the Augusta office, executive director Tonya Bonitatibus and her team advocate for clean water by testifying before state lawmakers, speaking to concerned citizens and patrolling the waters themselves, documenting evidence of any threats to the watershed. 

Photo by Beau Kester

Some of Savannah Riverkeeper’s toughest battles are being fought right here in Savannah: current hot-button issues include offshore drilling, pollution due to development, seismic testing and, primarily, the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project, or SHEP, which will deepen the Savannah River to 47 feet at mean low water, allowing the port to accommodate larger vessels in greater numbers.

“Once you start dredging, those particles block opportunities for fish to have oxygen,” Mewborn explains. “They move on, or they die. That is impactful, as is any differing temperature or chemicals that get in the river.”

Photo by Beau Kester

Mewborn is fresh to Savannah, but he’s no stranger to the water. For the past 15 years, he’s worked all over the country as a river guide, teaching first-timers and seasoned paddlers alike how to navigate whitewater, freshwater and saltwater. He’s been on staff with Savannah Riverkeeper since early 2019, working to educate the public on the threats to their lifesource and playground. 

For the first installment of the Riverkeeper’s Summer Paddle Series, Mewborn planned a guided excursion on the Savannah River itself. Local outdoor enthusiasts tend to flock to Tybee, Skidaway Narrows or the Ogeechee River for boating and paddling adventures, but by launching mere feet from his remote office, Mewborn is able to show anyone interested the natural wonders behind the Riverkeeper’s work. By partnering with kayak supplier Savannah Canoe & Kayak, Riverkeeper can teach novice paddlers the ropes, and participants are welcome to bring their own boats, as I did for the paddle series kickoff.

Photo by Beau Kester

Alongside skiffs, jon boats and domineering vessels with hungry motors that drown out the gentle strokes of our paddles in the water, our group launches into the Savannah River. Paddling through the shadow of Houlihan Bridge as the rattle of 18-wheelers overhead makes the steel beams sing, we’re quickly enveloped by marshland. Eastern winds hiss through the blades of spartina and rice plants, snowy egrets soar over our heads and the faint roar of traffic fades. The Savannah National Wildlife Refuge is visible in the distance as we round Hog Marsh Island, a jungle-like ecosystem guarded by knobby cypress knees, watchful bald eagles and the occasional alligator enjoying the sun. Mullet fish leap from the water in our wake, eyed by osprey soaring overhead. 

Ahead of me, Mewborn and his girlfriend Jordan lead by example, pulling discarded soda cans, neglected floaters and stray plastic from the waters to bring to shore for proper disposal. 

Photo by Beau Kester

The tide and breeze offer some slight resistance as we round the island and make our way back to civilization and Houlihan Boat Ramp, the paper mill peering over the horizon. Crumbling train trestles made of brick and tabby — signs of faded industry — rise from the water alongside us. Savannah’s first dock for oceangoing ships was built just a decade after James Oglethorpe and his 120 settlers arrived in 1733, and while regulations have certainly improved since then, there is still a fight to protect our waters for future generations. As we pull our kayaks out of the water and give the river a parting glance, I feel an inherent connection to a swiftly moving current. 

Do Your Part

Saving your Savannah River can start with simple lifestyle changes.

Kiss plastic goodbye. 

“Go for paper, or an aluminum water bottle,” Mewborn suggests. “By weaning yourself off that plastic need, you’ll help prevent this stuff from breaking down in our water system.” 

If you see litter, pick it up. 

“Being a part of a community and getting involved can be as simple as picking up trash on the street,” says Mewborn. Join in on a Savannah Riverkeeper group cleanup for community-oriented cleaning fun  — follow Savannah Riverkeeper on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for updates, and check savannahriverkeeper.org for upcoming community events.

Kick (cigarette) butts. 

Cigarette butts continue to be a major trash problem; if you smoke, dispose of your butt properly in a trash receptacle or designated ashtray — don’t flick it in the street, into a storm drain and into our waterways. Encourage smokers in your life to do the same.

Share the great outdoors.

Turn Sunday mimosas with the crew into a picnic at Skidaway Island State Park. Create a birding scavenger hunt for the whole family. Join a Savannah Riverkeeper paddle with friends and family and foster an appreciation of the outdoors — and, of protecting it  — in the people you love. 

Celebrate for a cause. 

Fill your social calendar with events that benefit the organizations fighting to save our waterways, like Savannah Riverkeeper’s annual winter oyster roast at Hogan’s Marina. Sign up for the official Riverkeeper newsletter at savannahriverkeeper.org to be the first to secure your tickets.

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