If you blinked, you might have missed it. The Georgia General Assembly wrapped up their work March 20–the official start of spring and the official start of the 2014 campaign season (legislators cannot raise campaign money while in session and with primaries coming up May 20, there was impetus to get the leglislating out of the way and get on with fundraising).
Our rivers and streams fared well during the fast-paced session. Here’s a compilation of bills impacting our water and the critters that live in them and depend upon them–including us!
Flint River Bill Gets Watered Down
SB 213–The Flint River Protection Act was among the hottest topics at the Gold Dome. Lining up on one side was the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, the Georgia Farm Bureau and the Georgia Agribusiness Council. On the other side was the Georgia Water Coalition, private property rights activists, and thankfully a small group of legislators that saw the danger in this legislation and worked tirelessly to get the bill amended.
In one of the feel-good stories of the session, the debate over SB 213 showed that the legislative process can work. Originally, this bill could have been used to topple long-
standing Georgia water law and supported a highly-speculative, billion-dollar “flow augmentation and water exchange” that would have taken property rights from southwest Georgia farmers in an attempt to secure more water for metro Atlanta.
The hard work of Georgia Water Coalition members, led by Flint Riverkeeper, and including CRBI, informed legislators of the dangers of this bill and they responded. Attorney legislators Rep. Regina Quick (Athens) and Rep. Wendall Willard (Sandy Springs) along with rural legislators from Southwest Georgia led by Rep. Delvis Dutton (Glennville) and Rep. Debbie Buckner (Junction City) pushed the bill’s sponsors to amend the legislation so as to narrowly define the purpose of the bill.
As passed, the bill does what its proponents claimed they wanted to do: protect endangered mussels in four Flint River tributaries, and prevented a dangerous wholesale change in Georgia water law. Neither proponents or opponents left completely satisfied…and that is the nature of of the process.
Emergency Response Improved
In May 2011, after discharges from a Screven County textile plant contributed to the largest fish kill in Georgia history, Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division struggled to respond effectively to the catastrophic emergency. In fact, it was days before downstream water suppliers using Ogeechee River water were notified of the mess. That was in large part due to the fact that funding for EPD’s Emergency Response Team had been gutted–along with its staff.
In response, the Georgia Water Coalition worked with legislators from Ogeechee River communities to introduce HB 549. This bill passed both the House and Senate and now sits on the Governor’s desk. It mandates that EPD fund and maintain an emergency response program and coordinate with local authorities to better respond to tragedies like the Ogeechee River fish kill–another great victory for our rivers and streams in the 2014 legislative session.
Funds for Wildlife Tags Restored
When Georgia auto owners purchase license plates they have the option of buying a specialty tag to support Georgia’s Non-Game Wildlife Program. Unfortunately, that license program has generated fewer and fewer funds–due to lagging plate sales and the fact that only a fraction of the funds from renewals actually goes to the program. HB 881 lowers the purchase and renewal fees for these specialty tags from $35 to $25 and increases the allocation to GA DNR from $10 to $19 the first year and $20 for renewals.
This means state biologists like fish expert Bret Albanese and mussel man Jason Wisniewski will have more resources to study and understand the species we are all working to protect. Kudos to bill sponsor Rep. Bubber Epps (Dry Branch) and our legislators for recognizing the importance of this program.
Sewage Sludge Gets Slapped in Dawson County
The Coosa River Basin’s own Rep. Kevin Tanner (Dawsonville) responded to constituents that were threatened by a private out-of-county company that wanted to spread sewer sludge in their backyards. Tanner’s HB 741 offers protection from this kind of unwanted intrusion and gives more power to local governments in determining where sludge can and cannot be spread. The bill now sits before the Governor. The Dawson County Homeowners Association was instrumental in bringing this issue to Rep. Tanner’s attention and is yet more proof that our democratic system does work.
Here’s Where The Good News Ends…
For all the good news, we saw plenty evidence of just how the legislative process can go awry.
General Electric Site in Rome Impacted As Harried Senators Miss Key Amendment
In the fast-paced closing days of the session when legislators are asked to understand and vote on dozens of bills and countless amendments, Sen. Chuck Hufstetler (Rome) joined other senators in proposing an amendment to a bill effecting Georgia’s Brownfield laws.
Whether intentional or not, the HB 957 could allow highly contaminated sites like General Electric’s PCB-laced facility in Rome to be eligible for inclusion in Georgia’s Brownfield program–a designation that would relieve GE of treating contaminated groundwater at the site.
Georgia Water Coalition members and CRBI brought this consequence to the attention of several senators, and Hufstetler and Sen. William Ligon (Brunswick) introduced an amendment to remedy this potential “unintended consequence.” Unfortunately, in the harried last days of the session, the amendment failed on 16-18 vote. Many of the senators did not even get a chance to see the amendment before Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle called the vote. The bill, without the important amendment, passed and now sits on the Governor’s desk.
Groundwater on the Georgia Coast Loses Long-Standing Protection
Since 1999, groundwater on Georgia’s coast has been protected by a moratorium on the controversial practice of injecting river water and other surface water into pristine underground wells. The process, known as “aquifer storage and recovery,” aims to increase water supplies by “storing” surface water in underground aquifers. In other areas where this technique has been attempted, groundwater has been contaminated and in other cases, well drillers have been unable to “recover” the “stored” water. In other words, it’s a highly risky, highly speculative water supply “tool.”
Of course, that means the Deal Administration is all over it. SB 306, a bill that would have extended the long-standing moratoruium on aquifer storage and recovery in the Floridan aquifer along the Georgia coast, was tabled in Sen. Ross Tolleson’s Natural Resources Committee–no doubt a directive from the Deal Administration which has invested part of its Water Supply Program funds in an experiemental groundwater project at Tybee Island.
Legislators, who have proven they support the moratorium by extending it repeatedly, were never give a chance to vote on the issue–another fine example of the adulteration of the legislative process.
Stream Buffers to Take A Beating?
They finally did it! With the help of Sen. Steve Gooch (Dahlonega) Lumpkin County’s independent-minded, don’t-tread-on-me county leaders finally got legislation passed addressing those on-so-onerous stream buffers aimed at protecting their own drinking water stored in Yahoola Creek Reservoir. SB 299, addressing stream buffer protections above water supply reservoirs, passed both houses and now sits before Gov. Deal.
Lumpkin County has never been able to access the water in the reservoir (which county taxpayers paid to build) because county commissioners have steadfastly refused to create a watershed protection plan that abides by state rules and regulations that every other county must follow.
At issue is a 150-foot no-build buffer on either side of streams feeding Yahoola Creek Reservoir. Granted, in the steep, hilly terrain of Lumpkin County, this wide buffer would force some property owners to build homes and other structures in areas that might do more harm than placing the structure closer to the stream. That problem should be addressed.
That said, current laws allow Lumpkin County to enforce buffers of as little as 50-feet in a watershed protection plan so long as they also limit development density and implement other watershed protection measures.
SB 299, as passed, changes nothing. The long-bemoaned 150-foot buffers are still the law. But, that may change if EPD initiates a new rule-making process in which less restrictive stream buffers might be adopted. Given the track record of the current administration, a battle in the rule-making process looms in the future.
Now come the elections. Ask the candidates what they’ll do for Georgia’s water!
March 25, 2014