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The 2014 legislative session brought a mixed bag of both good and bad for Georgia's rivers.

The 2014 legislative session brought a mixed bag of both good and bad for Georgia’s rivers.

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-

A clear cold spring bubbling forth from the Floridan aquifer spills into the Flint River in Southwest Georgia. The Flint depends on the aquifer for much of its flows, but the aquifer has been depleted by massive agriculture-related water withdrawals.

A clear cold spring bubbling forth from the Floridan aquifer spills into the Flint River in Southwest Georgia. The Flint depends on the aquifer for much of its flows, but the aquifer has been depleted by massive agriculture-related water withdrawals.standing Georgia water law and supported a highly-speculative, billion-dollar “flow augmentation and water exchange” that would have taken rights from southwest Georgia farmers in an attempt to secure more water for metro Atlanta.

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

A measure to better protect the Etowah RIver in Dawson County from run off from land-applied sewer sludge passed.

A measure to better protect the Etowah RIver in Dawson County from run off from land-applied sewer sludge passed.

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?

Protection of the Yahoola Creek Reservoir in Lumpkin County was at the center of controversy swirling around SB 299.

Protection of the Yahoola Creek Reservoir in Lumpkin County was at the center of controversy swirling around SB 299.

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!

Joe Cook

March 25, 2014

 

Bovine Spring is one of many springs bubbling from the Floridan aquifer that sustain flows in the Flint River.

Bovine Spring is one of many springs bubbling from the Floridan aquifer that sustain flows in the Flint River.

The Georgia General Assembly is a strange place. The saga of SB 213, the so-called Flint River Drought Protection Act, is a prime example. This bill that could harm farmers is supported by the Georgia Farm Bureau. And, while its proponents claim the bill is all about protecting endangered species, Georgia’s environmental community (lovers of  critters both rare and common) opposes the bill.

It’s enough to make even a seasoned legislator scratch their head and wonder…what’s going on here?

Here’s what’s going on:

The Flint River is getting drained dry. Water diversions and water treatment systems in metro Atlanta divert millions of gallons of water from the Flint daily, and downstream in southwest Georgia’s agricultural belt, the state has issued more than 6,500 permits for watering farms around the Flint River. In the upper Flint, studies show that today during droughts there is 70 percent less water in the river than during comparable droughts in the 1950s and 1980s.

In 2001, the state passed the first Flint River Drought Protection Act: that law authorized the state to pay farmers not to irrigate their crops during droughts. Not surprisingly, that plan didn’t work so well.

The latest Flint River Drought Protection Act requires farmers implement water conservation measures and irrigate crops more efficiently—a great plan!

CLICK HERE TO VIEW A YOU TUBE VIDEO ABOUT SB 213 

Unfortunately, the bill includes a Trojan Horse—and this horse is what has legislators flummoxed.  The bill, which is awaiting final passage in the House of Representatives, includes language that that supports a “flow augmentation” scheme.

The state will take water from the Floridan aquifer (the very groundwater most farmers use to irrigate their crops) and pump it into deeper underground caverns for “storage.” Then when flows on the Flint get low, they’ll pump the water out of the ground and into the Flint. Sound preposterous? It is.

A center-pivot irrigation system rolls across corn along the Flint River in Southwest Georgia.

A center-pivot irrigation system rolls across corn along the Flint River in Southwest Georgia.

This process, often called “aquifer storage and recovery,” has never been done successfully in Georgia, and where it is used elsewhere, it has met with limited success. Some projects have failed to yield the amount of water expected and in other cases, the projects have contaminated pristine groundwater.

The Deal Administration doesn’t even know if its scheme will work. It’s currently investing more than $4 million on a test project on the Flint, and they say if it works, it will be used to protect endangered species.

That’s Interesting.

The same administration that has funneled $160 million to dam and reservoir projects in the past two years that will wipe out habitat for endangered fish is now an advocate for endangered mussels?

Here’s where the soldiers bust out of the Trojan horse. This test project was originally pitched by political insiders close to the Deal Administration. The plan is to build up to 150 augmentation wells in Southwest Georgia and pump up to 250 million gallons a day into the Flint to create a “water exchange” that will enable metro Atlanta to take more water from the Chattahoochee River which joins the Flint at the Florida state line.

The cost of this grand scheme: $900 million to $1.2 billion, presumably to be financed by taxpayers and water customers.

What’s worse is that language in this bill would allow Atlanta bureaucrats to prevent farmers along the Flint from withdrawing water from the river when these “flow augmentation” projects are operating—essentially assigning “ownership” to water in the river.

Is the Flint River Drought Protection Act really about protecting mussels like this?

Is the Flint River Drought Protection Act really about protecting mussels like this?

This provision could undo 200 years of Georgia water law that says Georgia’s water is not owned by anyone, but is available for the reasonable use of ALL waterfront property owners.

Georgia’s House of Representatives needs to vote “NO” on this bill.  A yes vote, regardless of the Deal Administration’s real motives, is a vote that will endanger Georgia water law, take rights from property owners and put taxpayers on the hook for a water supply scheme that could cost more than $1 billion.

Feb. 21, 2014

The Etowah River  would be impacted by a new reservoir on Richland Creek, a tributary of the river in Bartow County.

The Etowah River would be impacted by a new reservoir on Richland Creek, a tributary of the river in Bartow County.

Would you invest millions in a speculative product for which there was no demand? You would if you were Gov. Nathan Deal.

Would you invest millions of dollars in a company manufacturing widgets if that company lost 25 percent of its widgets in shipping? You would if you were Gov. Nathan Deal.

Of course, Gov. Deal has not been known for his acumen in his personal investments, but here he’s investing our tax dollars…and we should be very concerned.

Georgia Water Coalition

It was these shaky investments, doled out as part of the Governor’s Water Supply Program (GWSP) that the Georgia Water Coalition highlighted in its recently released “Dirty Dozen,” a list of the 12 worst offenses to Georgia’s water (full list available at http://www.garivers.org/gawater/dirtydozen.htm).

A week before this list was released, the Deal Administration announced that it would invest $45 million in four water supply projects including the proposed Glades Reservoir in Hall County and the proposed Richland Creek Reservoir in Paulding County.

Thankfully, for Lumpkin and Dawson county residents, the Deal Administration opted not to provide funding for the proposed Calhoun Creek Reservoir—a pipedream that even Gov. Deal balked at…for now.

The need for the Glades Reservoir, to be filled with water diverted from the Chattahoochee River upstream of Lake Lanier, is very much in question. Depending on the outcome of studies by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Hall County and others may be able to take much more water from Lake Lanier, rendering Glades unnecessary.

What Floats Your Boat?$160 million in state funds for reservoirs in the last two years or $22 million for water efficiency projects?

What Floats Your Boat?$160 million in state funds for reservoirs in the last two years or $22 million for water efficiency projects?

In fact, to make it easier to funnel money to Glades, in October the Deal Administration changed the application rules for the GWSP, eliminating the requirement that applicants demonstrate a need for new water supply though 2050.

Likewise, the necessity of Paulding County’s Richland Creek reservoir is very doubtful. The county’s unrealistic population growth projections, its anemic water conservation efforts and uncertainty over how much water will be available from Lake Allatoona (the county’s current water supply) leave one wondering about the projected $90 million dam project (more than $50 million of which has already been provided by the Deal Administration through state loans).

What’s worse, the Paulding County Water Department, which would handle the water from this reservoir loses one out of every four gallons that it distributes because of leaking pipes and other inefficiencies.

Yet, the Deal Administration remains fixated on building dams. The single-minded focus is driven largely by the two-decade old water war with Alabama and Florida where it appears the Deal Administration’s strategy is to build its own reservoirs, control what flows into the federal lakes (Allatoona and Lanier) and circumvent federal control of these multi-state river systems.

The Administration’s latest move is to change yet another state rule (to be voted on by the Department of Natural Resources Board in December). This one would expand the state’s claim of “ownership” of water released from reservoirs upstream of Lanier and Allatoona.

To put Gov. Deal’s water spending priorities in perspective, consider this: During the past two years, he has directed $160 million to reservoir projects while sending only about $22 million to water efficiency projects which are generally considered the most cost-effective water supply investments we can make.

These mixed-up priorities and rule changes serve only to aggravate already contentious relations with Alabama and Florida—not to mention the federal government—and make reaching a water sharing agreement with our neighbors that much more elusive.

Federally protected Cherokee darters are among the fish that would be impacted by the proposed Richland Creek Reservoir in Paulding County

Federally protected Cherokee darters are among the fish that would be impacted by the proposed Richland Creek Reservoir in Paulding County

Alabama and Florida have already balked at Glades Reservoir, and a similar project on the Etowah River (Hickory Log Creek Reservoir), though completed, has gone unused because the Corps has repeatedly blocked Georgia’s claim of “ownership” of the water released from this reservoir into the Etowah River and Lake Allatoona.

Does the Deal Administration expect a different outcome from Glades Reservoir?

If Gov. Deal were wise he’d place a moratorium on dam investments until we know how much water we can realistically take from the big federal reservoirs. Simultaneously, he should direct his water supply funds to help communities like Paulding County fix their leaking pipes.

But don’t hold your breath; we’re dealing with Deal, a governor known for unwise business investments.

I love hogs. They’re cute, reportedly exceptionally smart…and they taste delicious.

But putting a smoked and chopped butt on my barbecue sandwich comes with consequences. Anyone who has raised these animals will tell you it can be a nasty business—especially when thousands of them are raised together.

Hogs poop—a lot. Studies (and I wouldn’t want to be the scientist collecting this data) show that a hog creates nearly four times the waste of your average human. That means that a farm with 12,500 hogs produces the same amount of poop as a city of 50,000 (that’s more than two city’s the size of Cartersville or Canton).

Keeping that in mind, consider this: Gov. Nathan Deal’s administration is now considering weakening rules that protect our communities from mega hog farms. The proposed changes would open the door to large factory farms and roll back rules that have been in place since the 1990s specifically to prevent Georgia’s farms, open spaces, rivers and streams from being defiled by hog manure.

The proposed rules would allow industrial farms with up to 12,500 hogs to be plopped down in our communities without providing notice to neighboring landowners; without limits on open liquid manure lagoons and without sufficient setbacks from public water supplies, streams, schools and neighbors.

This is as bad an idea as barbecue without sauce. So, why is it even being considered?

Charles Griffin, executive vice president of the Georgia Pork Producers Association in Bainbridge, told a Morris News Service reporter earlier this month that the push comes from four or five hog farmers that want to expand enough to provide jobs for their children.

A commendable motive, for sure, but the new rules would also invite more large-scale hog operations to Georgia.

One need look no further than neighboring North Carolina for a cautionary tale in hog farming. The Tar Heel State is one of the country’s leading hog producers and at any given time there are some 10 million hogs there. In 1995, an eight-acre hog waste lagoon ruptured and poured 25 million gallons of liquid manure into the New River. More than 10 million fish were killed and more than 364,000 acres of coastal wetlands were closed to fishermen.

And, this wasn’t the only hog manure tragedy. A string of spills that fouled other rivers and neighborhoods prompted the state to adopt laws that placed tougher restrictions on new hog operations. Now, anyone wanting to start a new hog operation in North Carolina with more than 250 animals is prohibited from using open waste lagoons  and spray fields to handle the waste.

Astoundingly, here in Georgia if the proposed rule changes are adopted, the same waste management practices that are deemed inadequate for 250 hogs in North Carolina may be used to handle the waste of up to 12,500 Peach State hogs.

Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division is accepting comments on the new hog rules through Oct. 28 via e-mail at EPDComments@dnr.state.ga.us. And on Dec. 3, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Board will vote on the proposed rules.

The Board should reject these weakened hog rules and vote to protect our communities, our fisheries and our water. Georgia has plenty of barbecue to brag about, but raising hogs under these new regulations would be a disgrace.

To view a list of the 19 DNR Board members and see who represents you, visit http://www.gadnr.org/board and then contact your Governor-appointed DNR Board member, at dnrboard@dnr.state.ga.us

Those wanting to learn more about the issue can visit the Georgia Water Coalition website: http://www.garivers.org/gawater/CAFOs.htm or read the Georgia Water Wire Blog

Joe Cook

Oct. 20, 2013

A great blue heron stand sentinel on the Coosa River. If the great blue could cast a vote, he'd vote for wetlands!

A great blue heron stand sentinel on the Coosa River. If the great blue could cast a vote, he’d vote for wetlands!

On Aug. 1, the editors of the Rome News-Tribune lambasted the Coosa River Basin Initiative for presumably stalling the arrival of tax revenues and jobs by opposing the development of the proposed Citi Center retail center to be located on a city-owned natural area sandwiched between Ridge Ferry Park and historic Jackson Hill. READ THE EDITORIAL HERE. 

As the volunteer President of the CRBI Board of Directors, I am writing to correct the numerous factual errors in the editorial, clarify CRBI’s position on the proposed shopping center and defend CRBI’s 20 years of daily work to protect and improve Coosa River communities.

CRBI is not responsible for Citi Center’s failure to get off the ground. The recent economic downturn forced Ledbetter Properties to delay this project that has been in the works since 2005. In 2012 CRBI asked federal agencies to review the permits issued for this project because Ledbetter Properties had changed their site plans.

Image

CRBI works to make scenes like this possible–people having fun in clean rivers.

The company had originally promised the citizens of Rome and federal regulators that as an integral part of their development plan, it would relocate and restore Burwell Creek which runs through the property. After discovering that such a project would damage their profit margin, they changed their plans. This change rendered their permit invalid. Furthermore, the original permit was issued without citizens having the opportunity to review the plans—another violation of federal guidelines for these type developments.

After federal agencies suspended the permit for the project, Ledbetter Properties voluntarily withdrew their permit application. CRBI’s efforts insured that federal laws were followed and that ordinary citizens would have the right to review the developer’s plans before construction began.

The property CRBI has made such efforts to protect provides important services for our community. These wetlands mitigate the effects of floods, filter pollutants, store sediment, provide wildlife habitat and help keep Burwell Creek and the Oostanaula River clean and healthy. Furthermore, a city-funded study of the property and adjacent Jackson Hill recommended that it be developed into Rome’s “Central Park”—not a shopping center.

Contrary to the editorial’s assertion, Burwell Creek is a relatively healthy urban stream. It harbors fish, turtles, frogs, snakes and more. CRBI’s tests for hazardous substances in the creek have shown no significant contamination. Ledbetter Properties has never conducted tests to support their assertions that Burwell Creek is contaminated because of its proximity to the old city landfill on the property.

The compromise development plan that CRBI first proposed in May 2012 would enable the shopping center to be built, would allow the old city landfill to be capped AND would allow for the preservation of critical natural areas on the site, providing recreational corridors between Ridge Ferry Park and Jackson Hill.

This way our community gets the new shopping opportunities, the jobs, the increased tax revenue…but it also gets working wetlands that can be utilized by everyone via boardwalks and walking trails connecting two of the city’s premiere public lands.

Ledbetter Properties most recent site plans did not accommodate this compromise, provided for only minimal connectivity between the two parks and protected none of the critical wetlands on the site. Hopefully, they will find a way to make this project a win-win for everyone this time.

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Giving the thumbs up for a clean Coosa River…

CRBI’s record of improving communities reaches far beyond identifying and correcting water pollution problems like this one. In the coming months, CRBI will invest more than $20,000 locally in developing a new parking area and boat launch on the Etowah River at Kingston. Last year, CRBI assisted the City of Lyerly in securing a $99,000 state grant to  develop boat launches on the Chattooga River, and  in 2010, $150,000 secured through CRBI’s advocacy efforts affecting a similar plan to build a shopping center on sensitive land in Canton, was used by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to permanently protect 436 acres of land in the Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area.

CRBI is an asset to not only the greater Rome community, but to the entire 5,000 square-mile Coosa River basin and its residents. Our rivers are cleaner, healthier and more inviting, and our communities are stronger because of this organization’s 20 years of dedicated work.

Chad Johnfroe

CRBI Board President

Developer’s promise to try to protect wetlands is the good news from the July 24 Redevelopment Committee…

The greater Rome community received good news July 24 at the City of Rome’s Redevelopment Committee meeting concerning Ledbetter Properties ongoing effort to construct a mega shopping center on land that could be part of Rome’s “Central Park.“

Wright Ledbetter told the committee that the company hopes to develop a site plan that will protect important wetlands on the site and provide for natural and recreational trail corridors through the 60-acre site that would connect the city’s adjacent property at Ridge Ferry Park and historic Jackson Hill.

That’s where the good news ends; he added, “Ultimately, we have to make it a feasible development, and there is a certain amount of square footage we need to do that.”

Translation: if the developer concludes that preserving part of this publicly-owned natural area cuts too far into its potential profits, there’ll be no saving “Rome’s Central Park.”

Buried within Ledbetter Properties’ comments to the committee was this threat: if the City supports the wishes of the Coosa River Basin Initiative (CRBI) and more than 1,000 citizens who have signed a petition asking the city commission to preserve these wetlands, we will be unwilling to build the shopping center.

Given that the majority of the Commission has consistently defended and supported the Ledbetter’s Citi Center development, it is unlikely our local leaders will come to the defense of wetlands and these citizens.

The actions of Commissioner Kim Canada at that July 24 meeting speak volumes about where the Commission’s sympathies lie on this matter. While I attempted to explain to the Committee the importance of reaching a compromise, Commissioner Canada interrupted and denied me any further comments, claiming I was making “threats.”

Had he permitted me to continue this is what he would have heard:

The Coosa River Basin Initiative, and the 3,000 members it represents, very much want to reach the compromise that CRBI first brought before the Commission and Ledbetter Properties in May 2012–build the shopping center, but preserve approximately 6 percent of the property to protect important wetlands and natural/recreational corridors. This is the best plan for our community, and CRBI remains committed to working with Ledbetter Properties and the City of Rome to achieve our common goals.

However, if these efforts fail because Ledbetter Properties deems such a plan “financially infeasible” and the city fails to demand a compromise, CRBI will work to prevent the project from moving forward.

State and federal laws state that when building shopping centers, developers must avoid and limit impacts to important natural areas. Through those same laws, citizens—including citizen groups like CRBI—have the authority to petition those state and federal agencies that will issue environmental permits for this project—and even appeal decisions made by these agencies.

Citizen involvement is at the heart of our American system of government. Even the most civic-minded elected officials don’t always know what is best for the community unless citizens communicate their views. It is unfortunate that CRBI must use this BLOG to complete a statement that should have been allowed at the recent Redevelopment Committee meeting.

Joe Cook

CRBI Executive Director

Spring in the Burwell Creek property. A proposed 60-acre retail center would bury this floodplain forest along the Oostanaula River in Rome.

Spring in the Burwell Creek property. A proposed 60-acre retail center would bury this floodplain forest along the Oostanaula River in Rome.

Some 30 Romans turned out for a meeting of the Redevelopment Committee of the Rome City Commission today, April 23, at 2:30 p.m. to urge the City Commission to consider a resolution calling for the protection of the Burwell Creek wetlands and the construction of recreational trails connecting Ridge Ferry Park and historic Jackson Hill.

The resolution proposed by CRBI is in response to the continuing threat of a 60-acre retail development on city-owned land adjacent to Riverside Parkway and Ridge Ferry Park. The proposed Citi Center development involves filling some 50 acres of floodplain and destroying some 4 acres of wetlands.

Before receiving a development proposal from Rome-based Ledbetter Properties in 2005, the city had commissioned a study that proposed using the Burwell Creek wetlands, Jackson Hill and Ridge Ferry Park to create “Rome’s Central Park.”

CRBI opposes the retail development on the site but has proposed a compromise in which the developer would set aside about 6 percent of the property to protect critical wetlands and provide for additional natural/recreational corridors through the retail center, connecting the city’s other park areas.

The Committee fell short of taking action on the resolution, but Commissioner Kim Canada requested that Ledbetter Properties and CRBI meet and provide a report to the Committee at its June 26 meeting. This marks the first time that the City Commission has directly requested that Ledbetter Properties meet with CRBI. Previously, the Commission had only encouraged such discussions.

At the meeting, Mayor Evie McNiece chided CRBI for “shirking responsibilities” for what she perceived as CRBI’s failure to engage with Ledbetter Properties.

The path through the Burwell Creek wetlands has been underwater continuously since Janaury.

The path through the Burwell Creek wetlands has been underwater continuously since Janaury.

On the contrary, during the past year, CRBI has contacted Ledbetter Properties on at least four occasions, presenting suggestions for improving the project and requesting opportunities to meet with the firm. Ledbetter Properties has indicated they will consider CRBI’s suggestions.

CRBI is encouraged by the Committee’s direct request for dialogue with Ledbetter Properties and intends to meet with their representatives to further discuss ideas for altering the development plan and intergrate preservation of wetlands into site designs.

Unfortunately, the Commission appears to be continuning a stance in which resolution of the conflict over the Burwell Creek wetlands remains the responsibility of CRBI and Ledbetter Properties.

CRBI believes the City, which must grant final approval of the site plans, should be actively involved in the discussions. More than 1000 individuals who live in, work, or visit Rome have signed a CRBI petition opposing development of the Burwell Creek wetlands, yet the Commission continues to hedge when responding to this opposition. The Commission should be actively seeking a compromise that satisfies the desires of all its constituents

At Wednesday’s meeting, Rome citizens Julie Smith, Georgia Burns, John Reiners and Rex Hussman all spoke in support of CRBI’s resolution. Others rose to spoke but were denied the opportunity by Committee Chairman Canada.  Despite the strong attendance from citizens for a work day meeting, Mayor McNiece dismissed the gathered citizens as “meaningless,” suggesting that there were many Romans who supported the Citi Center retail development.

Meaningless? Yes, there are many citizens that support this development, but Mayor McNiece is unwise to take lightly 1000 petition signatures and 30 citizens at a day time meeting.

Rome’s City Commission could best serve this community by responding to the citizens that attended today’s meeting. The resolution remains on the table. The citizens have spoken. They have told commissioners that preserving wetlands and developing recreational trails through natural corridors should be a priority for the community.

In the meantime, CRBI will engage in discussions with Ledbetter Properties and continue our mission of informing and empowering citizens to protect our rivers–including wetlands connected to those rivers.  When well-informed, citizens can always be counted on to set things straight.

A FINAL NOTE: If you haven’t checked out the Burwell Creek wetlands recently, they are in their full spring regalia. The wetlands portion of the property has been continuously flooded since Janaury. Ducks are nesting in the area and a walk through the area provides a surprising escape from the nearby hustle and bustle. Click here to view some recent photos of the wetlands on CRBI’s Facebook page. 

Here’s a heart-warming story from a most unlikely place—the Georgia General Assembly.

A clear cold spring bubbling forth from the Floridan aquifer spills into the Flint River in Southwest Georgia. The Flint depends on the aquifer for much of its flows, but the aquifer has been depleted by massive agriculture-related water withdrawals.
A clear cold spring bubbling forth from the Floridan aquifer spills into the Flint River in Southwest Georgia. The Flint depends on the aquifer for much of its flows, but the aquifer has been depleted by massive agriculture-related water withdrawals.

As I watched the Senate’s debate over the Flint River Drought Protection Act on the video feed outside the chambers with other Georgia Water Coalition (GWC) members, who should stroll up together but Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) Director Jud Turner, accompanied by former EPD Director Harold Reheis. (see story page 1) 

Turner, and his EPD staff, were the presumed authors of the Flint River bill. Reheis works for Joe Tanner & Associates, a firm that just months earlier had garnered a $4.4 million state grant to experiment with an aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) scheme to “augment” flows on the Flint. He was likely one of the bill’s “shadow writers.”  As proposed by Reheis’ employer, this ASR-flow-augmentation scheme could ultimately cost taxpayers and/or water utility customers as much as $1.2 billion…and enrich Joe Tanner & Associates.

The bill being considered in the Senate would provide state funding for this very “flow augmentation” project, but the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Ross Tolleson (R-Perry) when questioned by other senators, repeatedly denied any connection between his bill and the Tanner & Associates’ ASR scheme.

ASR “is not even listed in this bill,” he said, dismissing the warnings of GWC activists as “lies and distortions” from people in the hall.

Full disclosure: Sen. Tolleson received a $1000 campaign donation from Joe Tanner & Associates in 2012 (as an incumbent running uncontested). In fact, the consulting firm headed by Tanner, a former Department of Natural Resources commissioner, donated more than $46,000 to the campaign coffers of Gov. Deal and other key legislative leaders in 2012. Besides Reheis, Tanner also employs Allen Barnes, the predecessor to Turner as EPD head.

Against such free-spending and politically-connected opponents, I held little hope that this bad bill could be defeated, but GWC’s member organizations went to work. Action alerts went out and hundreds of conservationists across the state responded. Meanwhile, GWC lawyers educated legislators about the underlying problems with the bill that could fundamentally change Georgia’s existing water laws.

On the last day of the session, CRBI worked side by side with more than a dozen GWC professionals at the Capitol to defeat the bill. Unable to secure enough “yes” votes to assure passage, the bill’s supporters opted not to call a vote on it.

In the closing moments of a session in which ethics legislation stole the headlines, a band of citizen activists exerted more influence than the political insiders. In a place where cynicism is as thick as the Georgia Code itself, this was, indeed, a heart-warming story. You can read more about the Georgia General Assembly session in CRBI’s latest Mainstream newsletter.

A month after this victory, American Rivers named the Flint one of America’s 10 most endangered rivers because of Georgia’s history of allowing too many municipal and agricultural withdrawals from the river.

Moving forward, citizens and river protection groups must remain ever more vigilant as these political insiders vie for millions in state tax dollars to fund their pet water supply projects–many of which may not be in the best interest of our rivers, our tax dollars and our communities.

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