Riverkeeper seeks to clear old wrecks from Savannah River

Old wrecks clutter river

The moldering hulk lies in a few feet of water off the end of a dock on the Georgia side of the Savannah River.

 

Abandoned by its owner and unwanted by anyone else, the 45-foot-houseboat is slowly falling apart while officials look for someone to take responsibility.

Although it rests firmly on the river bottom, officials say the vessel is still adrift in a bureaucratic eddy, floating between the boundaries of various authorities that control local waterways.

Tonya Bonitatibus, the Savannah riverkeeper, said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers won’t touch it because it isn’t in the river channel, the Coast Guard won’t do anything about it because it isn’t leaking fuel or oil, and it isn’t on Augusta city property because it sits below the ordinary high-water mark.

“There’s only one agency that has the clear authority to remove it,” Bonitatibus said, referring to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. “But that program was defunded, so there’s no money to do it.”

The wreck is part a larger issue of abandoned boats and other large debris that litter the river’s bottom and shore between Augusta and Savannnah. Bonitatibus has catalogued at least 27 abandoned wrecks in that stretch of the river, ranging from bass boats to barges to shrimping vessels.

She is working on a proposal that she will present to the Augusta Commission to help clean up the river around Augusta, which will include hauling the old houseboat downriver for demolition.

That could cost between $5,000 and $10,000, she said.

“The bottom line is this (is) an expensive issue, and who’s going to pay for it?” she said.

One obvious person would be the owner, Bonitatibus said. Local and state authorities could still hold that person responsible, if they knew just who that was and where to find him.

Who owns the houseboat and how it arrived at its resting place is about as murky as the water it lies in, however.

For many years, the boat was occupied by Garcha Singh, who lived on it at the Augusta Riverwalk Marina, said Johnny Christian, the marina’s manager.

“We inherited Mr. Singh when we took over the marina,” Christian said.

Christian described Singh as a difficult man who was renting a slip for his houseboat at the marina. The problem was that he wasn’t paying his rent, Christian said.

The marina took Singh to court twice over unpaid rent in 2005 and 2006. In the last case, Singh entered a consent order to pay $4,500 in back rent and to stay current with his $200 monthly payments, plus utilities.

Christian said Singh didn’t follow through with that order and ultimately agreed to move his boat. The houseboat ended up a few hundred yards downstream, tied to the public dock at the Riverfront Marina.

“We were happy to see him go,” Christian said.

Bonitatibus said the boat remained there for the next couple of years, until Singh was asked to move it for the Augusta Southern Nationals speedboat races. It was taken downstream for a while but ended up back at the public dock until July 2010, when the boats races required it to be moved again, Christian said.

No one is sure what exactly happened next, but somehow the boat was towed upriver to the dock behind a house in the Waters Edge neighborhood.

It was abandoned there, and that is where it sank, Bonitatibus said.

The situation is more common than she would like. Again and again, she has seen old boats abandoned on the river when the owners could no longer afford to keep them up. Those boats end up sinking and creating dangers for other boaters, she said.

W.D. Dixon, who owns the dock where the houseboat sits, says the vessel isn’t his and he doesn’t know how it got there.

“Somebody just brought up there and left it,” said Dixon, who said he had never spoken with Singh about the boat. “I don’t know the guy, and I’ve never seen the guy.”

The man who towed the boat to Dixon’s dock, Frank Ransom, said it was his understanding that Dixon agreed to have the boat parked there. Ransom said a woman he knows was paid by Singh to move the boat there.

“I saw him give her money on the dock, and she gave me $600 to tow it,” he said. “After we docked the boat, she yelled at a fellow up at the house.”

Dixon insisted that he never agreed to allow anyone to dock the boat at his house.

“I never talked with anybody,” he said.

Although he said he would like to see it go, Dixon hasn’t been interested in spending his own money to have it removed. Bonitatibus said Dixon has offered to help pay for at least part of the costs in the past year, but backed out when she was close to making arrangements.

“Why would I go spend $10,000 to move a boat that’s not mine, and then get sued over it afterward?” Dixon said.

Rob Sherman, of Augusta Licensing and Inspection department, said if it isn’t resolved soon, the city might have to go after Dixon, because he hasn’t done anything in two years to get rid of it, even when it was still floating.

Dixon said he didn’t want to set the boat adrift, because then it would just become a hazard to navigation.

“I’d love to see it moved,” he said. “But I’d rather look at it than have it maybe hurt somebody down the river.”

SLIDESHOW: Savannah River debris
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