Savannah Riverkeeper fighting to keep waterways open to the public

By: Hope Jensen Email
By: Hope Jensen Email
Savannah Riverkeeper Tonya Bonitatibus

Savannah Riverkeeper Tonya Bonitatibus (WRDW-TV / March 15, 2012)

News 12 at 11 o'clock / Wednesday, March 27, 2013

EVANS, Ga. (WRDW) -- A popular waterway just off the Savannah River is caught up in a controversy. The Savannah Riverkeeper is angry after she was told a part of the river is privately owned, meaning if you float through, you could be trespassing. The Riverkeeper says it should be a public river and she'll take it all the way to court if she has to.

It all came to light as they were planning their Benderdinker Festival, a kayak and canoe race along a waterway in Columbia County. When they applied to DNR for a permit, they were told they needed the permission of the property owner to use that part of the river.

"Private, public, private, public, same exact waterway," said Riverkeeper Tonya Bonitatibus as she pointed to either side of her boat.

Her boat was sitting on the line between what's considered public and private portions of the river.

"This water comes directly from the Savannah River, it is portions of the Savannah River and we can not get to a point where we are allowing people to privatize the river," she said.

But Georgia's Department of Natural Resources says state law allows landowners to control the water flowing through their property.

"If they pay taxes on both sides in his particular area of the river, it's theirs. It's private property," said Capt. Mark Padgett with the DNR.

"If the landowner wanted to stop people from going up through there, he could," added Sgt. Doyle Chaffin.

The part of the river in question is the backside of an island on the Savannah River where dozens of people canoe, kayak and fish on a daily basis. In this case, the owner is the Champions Retreat Golf Club. A portion of the river with the golf course on both sides is the part that's considered private property.

"This portion of water comes directly from the river at the top of the island and comes back around as it wraps around this island and this is a public waterway," Bonitatibus said. "This is something that belongs to you and me and the children."

DNR says the waterway is not considered navigable, meaning a barge carrying freight couldn't go through it, but Bonitatibus says its a part of the Savannah River.

"Usually this type of situation is had over a 20-foot wide little tiny stream," she said. "Not something that is so clearly an active water body used by so many people. It really kind of blows me away."

She says she plans to take this issue to court if necessary.

"I want there to be a very clear case law from this instance that says is this water navigable or not and I very strongly believe that it is," Bonitatibus said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says it is considered a navigable waterway because it flows from the Savannah River, but in these situations, state law supersedes that.

The festival did get permission from the property owners for the festival on Saturday, April 27. DNR says they have never had a problem with these owners not allowing people on that part of the river, but Bonitatibus says it shouldn't even be an issue and should be a public waterway.

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