Savannah River Basin

Scientists are studying unique efforts by The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to sustain and restore this river’s health.

  • The Savannah River is one of the state’s longest and largest waterways, marking most of the boundary between Georgia and South Carolina.
  • The river has been a source of food and water for centuries, been dammed and drained, used to power industry and carry its wastes, and altered so dramatically that its ecological health and the natural communities it supports are imperiled.
  • The Nature Conservancy is part of the Sustainable Rivers Project, an unprecedented partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other organizations working to restore and protect rivers in the United States including the Savannah River Basin.

If you live in Georgia chances are you’ve been touched in some way by the Savannah River. The river supplies drinking water to more than 1.5 million people, is harnessed for hydro and nuclear power, provides recreation, feeds the state’s rich coastal fisheries and is the site of the nation’s tenth busiest port for oceangoing container ships. The computer you’re using to read this may very well have come by way of the Savannah River.

But that’s only a part of the Savannah River’s story. To really understand it, you need to go back to its source. The river begins where the Seneca and Tugaloo rivers meet in Hart County in eastern Georgia. From Lake Hartwell, the river extends more than 300 miles, draining portions of 27 Georgia counties before meeting the Atlantic Ocean about 15 miles south of the city of Savannah.

On its southern journey, the river passes through forests, extensive swamps and agricultural land – and in the lower portion, south of Augusta – bottomland forests, blackwater tributaries and rich estuaries where fresh and salt water merge and the river falls under tidal influences. It is here that the Savannah River nourishes some of the most diverse ecosystems in the world.  It is here, too, that 18th century landowners used the tidal river to create vast rice plantations.

But long before rice plantations dotted the landscape of the Savannah River Basin, native Americans called the river’s banks home, particularly the high bluffs of the lower Savannah River. Archaeologists believe Paleoindians lived along the river some 12,000 years ago.  Even older fossil remains have been uncovered of ancient ocean life, attesting to the regions earliest history as part of the vast seas covering the earth.

The Savannah River looks very different today. Three lakes built to regulate the river’s flow and to use for power, recreation and drinking water storage have substantially impacted the system, including the endangered fish and other species that depend on seasonal variations in water temperature, speed and quantity.

Since 2004, The Nature Conservancy has been part of the Sustainable Rivers Project, a partnership that includes more than 40 federal, state and local agencies and organizations as well as academic institutions to manage the Savannah and several other rivers in a more natural way. A series of controlled floods here has shown that simple modifications to how dams are managed can improve the outlook for the health of the river and all that depend on it.

In the coming years, the completion of research designed to factor in drought conditions will shed new light on dam management processes, helping the Corps of Engineers manage water levels in ways that meet the needs of communities and wildlife. As plans for harbor deepening and ever-increasing demands on the Savannah River continue, a balanced approach informed by science is the best way to ensure a sustainable future for this storied river.


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