Meandering Down The Savannah To The Sea

Riverkeepers Eye Industry And Nukes

originally published November 2, 2005


Ben Emanuel

On the last day of September, I catch my ride before dawn to get down to Augusta, to a marina on the Savannah River, for a boat trip. Frank Carl, the Executive Director of the Savannah Riverkeeper (SRK), has assembled a group to travel the river from Augusta to Savannah: an educational trip he calls the "Coastal Plain Meander."

The name, while cute, carries some irony. The "Meander" part borrows the name given to the wide, oxbow-shaped bends that the river (or any river) makes as it curves and winds its way downstream through the soft, alluvial sediments of its Coastal Plain river valley. The irony comes in when one considers that the river lost 42 miles of its length to work done decades ago by the US Army Corps of Engineers to straighten the river out, to cut new, more direct channels across those sinuous meander curves so as to make the river trip shorter for barge traffic.

The double irony comes with the historical fact that as soon as the Corps finished with that work, some time in the '60s, barge traffic on the river was all but dead anyway. That's only one of many contradictions to be found on a river whose forested banks and jumping fish conceal an industrial past and, in places, a heavily industrial present.

We Launch

Our starting point in Augusta is a back-lot boat dock a little below downtown. The river there is wide, flat and calm. Frank refers to it as "the pond," because for 15 miles or so it's backed up by the New Savannah Bluffs Lock and Dam, a water-control structure built to make Augusta's port more manageable in the days when the city's commerce depended on the river. That is, the river isn't a river at all when you leave town on it. It's just a long, skinny pond in the shape of a river. Upstream loom a few big reservoirs (Hartwell, Russell and Strom Thurmond) plus a short stretch of free-running Fall Line shoals just above Augusta, and a small lock-and-dam downstream.

We motor pretty fast through the pond, though, in order to keep on schedule and make our appointment with the lockmaster. Our craft is a 45-foot pontoon boat, with a vinyl roof, several rows of cushioned bench seating, and twin 115-horsepower outboard motors. When he wants to, our captain can get the thing moving. Mike Snead, the pontoon's captain and owner, had the boat custom-built for eco-tours in the rivers and estuaries all around Savannah — "dolphin tours" and such. Frank chartered the boat for this event, one he hopes will grow from year to year (this is its third), a way to get interested citizens and Riverkeeper members, as well as himself, out on the water, out on the Savannah. Our crew on this trip includes Frank and his wife, Jan; Captain Mike and his first mate, Walt; several outdoorsy, birdwatching retirees from Augusta and Savannah; a science textbook-writer and avid outdoorswoman also from Savannah, my friend April Ingle, who is the Executive Director of the Georgia River Network (based in Athens); and me.

When we get to the lock, a boat catches our attention, coming up from behind. It is a small Maine lobster boat — well, really a nice-looking, custom-made pleasure boat in the style of a lobster yawl — called the Acadiana. The Acadiana ties up to go through the lock with us, so we have a chance to ask her crew what in the world they are doing on the Savannah River. The man and woman on board tell us they've brought her all the way along the Atlantic coast through the Intracoastal Waterway, then up the Savannah to Augusta for a spell. Saying, "Yeah, she's a one of a kind on this river," the man tells me, "… I became a riverboat captain on the way up here." His yawl isn't built at all right for the twisty-turny currents in the big bends of a river like the Savannah. Captain Mike gives the fellow traveler some advice on how to navigate them. Once the water drops (some three or four yards in height!) and the lock gates open up, the Acadiana speeds away downstream, her wake beating at the river's muddy banks. Mike wonders aloud whether we'll see her again on our way downstream, pointing out that the steering is easier going upstream, and that there are an awful lot of submerged snags for a captain to watch out for. But we never do see the Acadiana again after she rounds the bend below the lock, so she must have made out okay.

Industry's Impact

Ben Emanuel

The lock itself, of course, is a relic from the days of the barges, but it still has its impact on the river. Once we're through it, Frank smiles to tell us that there will be no more impoundments damming the river's flow from here to the sea. On the other hand, it isn't long before we pass by some of the heaviest industry on the Savannah. One plant, a manufacturer of caustic sodas and chlorine, has a small canal coming out to the river. Pointing at it, Frank grins and says, "They're used to seeing the Savannah Riverkeeper boat go up that channel." He has a 20-foot pontoon of his own that he uses for regular check-ups and water samples on the river.

Pointing at an industrial outfall a little way downstream, Frank tells us its plant has "about 600 pounds of mercury unaccounted-for each year." The implication, of course, is that the missing mercury is going to the river. Most freshwater is full of mercury anyway: it comes out of the air, where it exists as a product of coal-fired power plants, and is deposited into water bodies. Mercury is the reason for the "fish consumption guidelines" put out by the Department of Natural Resources — more than one meal a week of a certain fish from a certain stretch of a certain stream is officially more than people ought to eat. But mercury going straight into the river from an industrial outfit? Yikes.

I'm not sure, anyway, whether Frank is exaggerating the 600 pounds or not. Being on the river with Frank Carl is a little bit that way: he is very knowledgeable about his river, and he's glad to share his knowledge — after all, it's his job — but as his ever-present subtle, sly smile suggests, there's no guarantee that in the right company, the information will come without an opinion attached.

Of course, no one doubts that this is the right group for tallying some of the abuses the Savannah suffers. Before long, everyone gets the idea and starts pointing out pipes and culverts draining to the river. Frank is curious about any he didn't already know about. ("A pipe? What in the hell is that from?")

I begin to realize that this trip is a good opportunity for Frank himself to get out on the river and take note of its condition. He notes the mile mark of every unfamiliar pipe and culvert, as well as every pasture whose cows have free access to the river. Although farmers can pump river water out to water their herds, it's illegal for cattle to be unrestricted from actually entering the river, where they tend to enjoy standing around cooling off, chewing their cud, and performing other bodily functions regardless of any thoughts of keeping a downstream community's water source clean. We see several such spots on our first day alone, all on the Georgia side of the river. Frank is surprised; on last year's trip, he says, there weren't any cows in the river on the Georgia side. He makes a note to check in with some of those farmers after the trip.

Nuclear Presence

Ben Emanuel

Of course, there isn't much but woods on the South Carolina bank. We aren't far out of Augusta when we begin seeing menacing signs warning against trespassing on the land to our left: the Savannah River Site. In the 1950's the U.S. Department of Energy went looking for a big, empty tract of land on which to start up a nuclear facility. They found an area with vast undeveloped swampland, evicted a couple of small towns wholesale from the adjoining pine woods, and created a 310-square-mile property that would become both a major part of the nation's nuclear program and an ideal locale for ecological studies (UGA's Savannah River Ecology Lab) in a largely undisturbed wilderness.

Today, there are several inactive nuclear reactors and a good deal of nuclear waste still on the site. Unfortunately, research has shown that some of the waste is not well-contained; the streams draining the site are bringing high levels of tritium down to the river. For this reason, Frank's boat is a frequent visitor to the mouths of these creeks, too. Because of the high level of security on the site, the mouths of its creeks are gated, but Frank has sampled the water they discharge into the river.

The government samples the water through there, too. It is a strange sight, every so often in that isolated, wooded section of river, to come upon a little miniature white boat, moored to a piling and facing upstream, with a little solar panel on top to power the automatic water-sampling equipment inside. These little robot-skiffs occasionally come to life for a few seconds, some motor inside them cutting on to push against the current briefly and keep the little boat's bow pointed upstream.

Just around the bend from one of those automatic samplers, we come upon the private landing where a generous stranger's river house is our home for the night. Set back from the river, up on a low bluff with a grassy mowed lawn is a modest, pleasant-looking house with the customary large deck overlooking the river. Everyone, including Frank, is impressed with the peacefulness of the surroundings. Frank has talked to the owner, a man named Hargrove, on the phone, but he hasn't seen the place.

Walking up the slope and around the front of the house we come upon a carved wooden sign hanging over the front porch: "Cliff's Folly." The front of the house, away from the river, looks out on a large, grassy field beyond which the two huge cooling towers of Plant Vogtle — a nuclear power plant on the Georgia side — loom over the trees. Huge clouds of steam issue from the tops of the towers, the only blemish (albeit a significant one) on the rustic scene.

Inside, it is evident that the Hargroves have had their share of fun there at Cliff's Folly. Framed snapshot collages document a few years' worth of a big annual cookout called the "Spring Thaw." Others show smaller gatherings of drinking good old boys: one series is titled "A Dysfunctional Weekend Adventure at Hancock Landing." On the living room wall is a trophy mount, the snarling, massive head of a 350-pound wild hog shot in the swamps of the Savannah around Thanksgiving some years back. In the corner, a book of Tennyson's poems sits on the table. A 19th Century map of Burke County hangs on the kitchen wall. For a place so far back in the country, Hargrove's has its charm.

I pitch my tent on the lawn beside the river and sleep well there. A couple of times I wake in the night and think I see lightning, but it is only the bright strobe lights ringing the tops of the cooling towers at the power plant. In the morning, our benefactor, David Hargrove, shows up to ready the house for the rest of the weekend, and we have a chance to chat with him before we launch for the day. He tells us a little bit about the recent history of the place. His father bought the land in the '50s, and before long Georgia Power came through condemning land to build Plant Vogtle. But the family was able to hold out, and Hargrove says he doesn't mind having the cooling towers in view, or the Savannah River Site just across the river. He hunts and fishes there just the same, and he remembers when the industries upstream, towards Augusta, treated the river like dirt.

"When my father bought this place in 1956," he tells us, "this river ran red and stunk to high heavens." Frank, ever the teacher, then turns to the group and enjoins us: "Remember that, what he just said. That's the Clean Water Act." Frank is pointing out a fact underlying most all of the work being done under the auspices of the Riverkeeper movement. In the last three decades, the Clean Water Act has made improvements by leaps and bounds in cutting back on large-scale, unregulated industrial discharges into surface waters in this country, resulting in dramatic and salient changes for the better on a lot of rivers. But there's still a lot of work to be done: the growth of an urban area like Augusta, for instance, increases drinking water withdrawal, wastewater input, and polluted stormwater runoff. All that industry we'd seen the day before, although it's cleaner now, is still there.

Not to mention all the nuclear material at SRS. Hargrove spends enough time hunting and fishing on the river to know a little bit about what goes on there. He tells us that every now and then, a spent nuclear reactor comes upriver by barge for storage at SRS. At such times, the Corps of Engineers lets a lot of extra water out of the dams upstream so the river will run high, making passage easier, and the barge with its special payload slips quietly upriver from the coast.

Changing Terrain

Ben Emanuel

Our crew gains some new members on the second day: SRK board member James Marlow and his two sons, Tyler and Zack, drive down from Atlanta to join us. Tyler's a sophomore at the newest high school in Gwinnett County, and his brother's in middle school there. They are talkative, outgoing kids who'll fit in well in Athens in a few years: they both see the folly of the current development trends in their home county. I am quickly impressed with their grasp on Gwinnett's dire situation and their willingness to talk about it. While I am chatting with Tyler about all the land he's seen cleared recently, Zack walks up hyper and excited about a plan he's just hatched, having heard me say I live in Athens. "We need to find out where they're gonna cut the trees down," he says, "and set up a stage at the entrance, and get R.E.M. to play, so they won't be able to go in and cut the trees."

"Why R.E.M.?" I ask.

Zack shrugs. "Because they're hippies."

Tyler sighs and looks away at the river going by, then groans lackadaisically: "I'm gonna chain myself to a bulldozer."

That day on the river, we go through many of the 66 artificial cuts that the Corps of Engineers made, removing so many looping meander curves and oxbows from the river's course. Frank and Mike talk about the Corps' efforts to resuscitate the dying barge traffic decades ago. Because of competition from railroads and trucking, barge commerce died anyway. Mike said, "They spent billions and billions of dollars, and as soon as they finished, there was no traffic."

But the effects of the Corps' work are still there. Anywhere they altered the river's course, there is "riprap" on the river's banks — chunky granite rocks placed there to prevent the bank from eroding away. If it not for the riprap, it would be hard to tell that the river has been so drastically altered. (After all, over time the river itself cuts off those looping oxbows anyway, physics and gravity always pushing the water to seek a shorter course to the sea.) But even down there in the swamp, in the middle of nowhere, there are the signs of what people have done to change the river. In addition to the riprap, we frequently come upon old groupings of wooden pilings in the water, erected long ago to catch snags and sediment and keep them out of the navigational channel.

That day and the next, traveling the river is a study in contrasts. We are on an isolated stream buffered on both sides by wide swamps. We see egrets, herons, ibis, osprey, even a young bald eagle. We pass by bluffs with magnolia, beech, redbay, and bluff white oak towering over the river. Overcup oak, cypress, willow, ash and all the other swamp hardwoods are plentiful elsewhere. We see dozens of alligators and one raccoon, scare away countless turtles and hear owls at night. But the industry upstream is fresh in our minds, and the legacy of the river's commercial past is nearly everywhere to see, if you look for it.

Can't Rest

On the trip's fourth and final day, we make our way into Savannah. Most of the day, the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge is on one or both banks, so we are presented with more undisturbed, serene, wooded floodplain. In the morning, we see several wood storks, auspices of a good last leg to the trip. Several miles upstream of the city, the river splits up into the different channels of its delta. Though we take the Front River into town, we first explore the top end of the Middle River, in scrub marshes that used to be rice fields. Here and there, narrow canals lead off through the marsh — canals dug 200 years ago to drain the marsh for rice crops. We even see the remains of an old sluice gate, used to control the height of the water in the fields.

Before long, on the right bank of the Front River, we come upon more of the present-day industry: a Weyerhauser paper mill, another power plant (this one coal-fired), a sugar refinery, and then the remarkable Port of Savannah. A collection of huge new cranes is helping to load and unload the cargo of the massive freighters in the port. On our left, the wildlife refuge eventually has given way to a long island with high banks and scant vegetation: the dumping ground for the dredge spoils from the harbor. Mike describes for us the huge controversy brewing these days over proposals to dredge the harbor a few feet deeper so as to keep up with the shipping industry and accommodate even bigger ships in the port.

It is then that I start to realize the immensity of the tasks before Frank's fledgling Riverkeeper organization. The range of issues to address throughout the watershed is daunting. From the port, we quickly reach River Street and disembark in the bustle of a Monday afternoon in downtown Savannah, the last bluff on the river. Here our crew splits up, and those who are headed back upstate pile into a van whose route roughly parallels our downriver voyage in reverse. Riding back through the pine woods and cotton and soybean fields beyond the river's floodplain on the South Carolina side, I have a chance to talk with Frank some more about the SRK's future. He tells me his goal is to give the organization a solid foundation for growth. At some point he'll hire a development staffer and then, later, someone who can be out on the river full-time, more than he's able to be right now. We talk about the various challenges facing the river itself: from the urbanized watershed in Augusta to way up in Clayton, Georgia, where Stekoa Creek has been filled with sediment by the mountain-valley sprawl along US 441, hundreds of miles away from the harbor that may soon be deepened. Then there are the chemical and thermal pollution from the various factories and power plants, plus the contamination at SRS.

The van takes the lone two-lane highway through SRS on the way back, and Frank points out with pride the names of the various creeks we cross there, the same ones whose mouths we'd seen at the river. It's hard for him to learn much about even the geography at SRS; security is such that you're not allowed out of your car on that highway, not even to pick up trash, much less to sample those streams. It was encouraging to see Frank doing his damnedest to learn what he can about those creeks anyway. More than that, I admire him for taking on the bigger task before him. He's got a whole river to keep.
Ben Emanuel

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