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Georgia's coastal marshes won a measure of protection during the 2015 Georgia General Assembly session.

Georgia’s coastal marshes won a measure of protection during the 2015 Georgia General Assembly session.

The Georgia General Assembly closed shop April 2, and for Georgia’s environment, there was both good news and bad.

Topping the list of good news was the passage of House Bill 57 that will make it more affordable for homeowners to install solar panels. Shifting our energy dependence away from coal to clean energy sources creates new jobs and ultimately helps our rivers…yes our rivers. For example, Plant Hammond—a coal-fired power plant on the Coosa River—is the single largest user of water in northwest Georgia and its negative impacts on the Coosa have been far-reaching.

If you love Georgia’s coast, you’ll also be pleased with the passage of SB 101, a bill that restores a 25-foot “no-build zone,” or buffer, along Georgia’s coastal marshes.

This bill’s journey through the legislature is especially notable because its shows that citizen activists still make a difference in a political climate where money and well-heeled lobbyists too often rule the day.

As originally introduced, the marsh buffer bill included loopholes inserted at the request of a single lobbyist protecting the interests of wealthy clients on the Georgia coast.

The 200-plus member Georgia Water Coalition (GWC), including the Coosa River Basin Initiative, called out these loopholes, and many legislators agreed. Rep. Johnny Meadows (R-Calhoun), chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee, held the bill until the loopholes were removed, and a bill that truly protected the marshes passed. It was a victory for citizens (and our beautiful marshes) over special interests.

Plastic bags and other plastic containers are the most common trash found in Georgia's rivers. Thankfully, legislators defeated a bill that would have kept Georgia dependent on one-use, disposable plastic bags and containers for years to come.

Plastic bags and other plastic containers are the most common trash found in Georgia’s rivers. Thankfully, legislators defeated a bill that would have kept Georgia dependent on one-use, disposable plastic bags and containers for years to come.

Likewise, plastic bag manufacturers had their proverbial backsides handed to them. When Tybee Island and Athens began considering bans on plastic bags to curb litter and protect wildlife, the plastic bag manufacturing association convinced some legislators to introduce a bill prohibiting local governments from passing laws banning or otherwise restricting use of plastic bags.

Again, citizen activists, including the GWC, raised their voices. The House of Representatives soundly defeated the measure.

Of course, plastic bags, on their own, are not the problem; it’s people that cause plastic bag pollution. But now at least, local governments might experiment with progressive measures to wean us off one-use, disposable bags and other containers.

Now, for the bad news…

SB 36, a bill aimed at protecting well water by restoring a long-standing moratorium on the controversial and dangerous practice of injecting surface water into underground wells, languished in committee. It was bottled up by Gov. Nathan Deal’s administration that sees “aquifer storage and recovery” as a means of extending the state’s water supply….even at the risk of polluting pristine groundwater.

With HB 397, the Deal Administration also dismantled the Georgia Soil and Water Conservation Commission.

The bill allows Gov. Deal to hand-pick a panel responsible for approving the “Green Book,” the state manual that dictates what kind of precautions developers must take to keep dirt from leaving construction sites and muddying our streams.

Clear, free-flowing streams are at risk if Gov. Nathan Deal's hand-picked erosion and sedimentation council meddles with the state's manual for erosion control.

Clear, free-flowing streams are at risk if Gov. Nathan Deal’s hand-picked erosion and sedimentation council meddles with the state’s manual for erosion control.

After signing the bill, he quickly made those appointments. They included a paving contractor, a Georgia Power executive and a Department of Transportation engineer—all representatives of the entities regulated by the Green Book. No members of Georgia’s environmental advocacy community got the nod.

Finally, HB 255 tops the cake. This bill—backed by the Georgia Forestry Association—makes it illegal for any state-funded construction project to seek Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.

LEED-certified buildings save state taxpayers money through energy and water efficiency, but Georgia tree farmers have taken issue with LEED requirements to qualify as sustainable forest products. Their solution? Run the LEED program out of publicly-funded construction. Inexplicably, the bill passed. This measure rightfully won one of Creative Loafing Atlanta’s Golden Sleaze Awards for 2015.

Fallout from the 2015 legislative session, both good and bad, is proof that we need active and engaged citizens to protect our state’s natural resources and local communities.

A Valentine's Day card for Georgia's Environmental Protection Division and Georgia Power. All the Coosa needs is love...and a cooling tower!

A Valentine’s Day card for Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division and Georgia Power. All the Coosa needs is love…and a cooling tower!

In May 2011, the largest documented fish kill in Georgia history occurred on South Georgia’s Ogeechee River. Some 38,000 fish died and the news shocked local communities. The kill was traced to discharges from a textile plant and ultimately, thanks to a $5 million legal settlement secured by Ogeechee Riverkeeper, that discharge was cleaned up and the Ogeechee is now recovering.

Here in North Georgia on the Coosa River, it is probable that each year more fish perish at Georgia Power’s Plant Hammond, a coal-fired power generation facility near Rome, than died in the Ogeechee tragedy. And, sadly, our Coosa tragedy has occurred every year for more than 50 years with no action to correct the problem.

A Georgia Power study conducted from 2004-2005 at Plant Hammond and obtained by the Coosa River Basin Initiative in December through state open records requests, concluded that as many as 30,000-60,000 fish a year could die from being sucked into the plant’s intake pipes on the Coosa. Other data indicates that during the peak spring spawning season each day as many as 24 million striped bass eggs and larvae could be sucked into the plant’s cooling water system and perish.

These numbers are unfathomable, but so is the amount of water that Plant Hammond uses to produce the electricity we use in our homes and businesses. When operating at full capacity, more than 500 million gallons a day are pumped from the river and returned as unnaturally warm water. This massive withdrawal and discharge has occurred for more than 50 years, degrading the health of the river and reducing fish populations.

Plant Hammond on the Coosa River near Rome. This coal-fired power plant pumps more than 500 million gallons of water from the Coosa each day--about the same as what all of metro Atlanta uses in one day.

Plant Hammond on the Coosa River near Rome. This coal-fired power plant pumps more than 500 million gallons of water from the Coosa each day–about the same as what all of metro Atlanta uses in one day.

To put the plant’s water use in perspective, 500 million gallons a day is about the same as what all of metro Atlanta uses daily. During times of drought, it is more water than flows down the Coosa each day.

In fact, Plant Hammond is one of only two Georgia Power operated plants in the state that still rely on what’s called “once-through cooling.” Water from the river is used to cool the power generating system and keep the electricity flowing. This 1950s technology has no place in the 21st century.

Thankfully, it appears relief for the Coosa is on the way. Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD), which regulates the plant now says that it expects to require new cooling technology at the facility. The state agency will review the company’s pollution permits this year and changes should follow soon.

Georgia Power, for its part, acknowledges that changes may be on the way. It has possible construction of a cooling tower planned for 2019.

Recently adopted federal river protections also point to a new cooling tower at the plant.

What would the changes mean? Plant Hammond’s withdrawal from the Coosa would drop to about 30 million gallons a day and the warm water discharge would be eliminated. Oxygen levels in the river should revive and the number of fish sucked to their death at the plant’s intake pipes should fall dramatically.

Of course, it’s not cheap. Georgia Power estimates the cost of building a cooling tower at Plant Hammond in the $160 million range—a cost that ultimately gets passed on to customers.

Striped bass: The Coosa's top sport fish is threatened by the massive water withdrawal at Plant Hammond. During the fishes' peak spawning period as many as 24 million fish eggs and larvae can be sucked into the pipes at Plant Hammond where they likely perish.

Striped bass: The Coosa’s top sport fish is threatened by the massive water withdrawal at Plant Hammond. During the fishes’ peak spawning period as many as 24 million fish eggs and larvae can be sucked into the pipes at Plant Hammond where they likely perish.

But, restoring a river is worth a few cents on a monthly bill. We like the electricity that Georgia Power provides, for sure; but we also like healthy rivers where we can catch big catfish and striped bass.

EPD has known about this problem for decades, and in a 2004 state “cleanup plan” for the Coosa, the agency recommended that a cooling tower be installed at Plant Hammond. More than a decade later, the fish continue to die.

The Coosa fish kill tragedy has continued for far, far too long. EPD and Georgia Power need to follow through with their commitment to end it—sooner, rather than later.

Burwell Creek wetlands wearing an wintry dress.

Burwell Creek wetlands wearing an wintry dress.

It took six years, more than 1,000 signatures on a petition, multiple meetings with state and federal environmental regulators, untold phone calls and e-mails and considerable time and money, but in the end it appears the Coosa River Basin Initiative and citizen advocates have finally secured some measure of protection for wetlands threatened by the proposed Citi Center shopping center along Riverside Parkway.

Of course, as CRBI has pointed out throughout this effort, the law was on the citizens’ side.

Federal laws require that when developers build in wetlands, they must design their project to “minimize impacts” to these environmentally-sensitive lands that help keep our rivers clean and prevent flooding.

Floodwaters cover proposed building sites in the Burwell Creek floodplain.

Floodwaters cover proposed building sites in the Burwell Creek floodplain.

The earliest versions of the development plans minimized nothing, filling in all the wetlands on the site; the latest version preserves about 84 percent of the Burwell Creek wetlands. Hometown developer, Ledbetter Properties, is to be commended for listening to its neighbors and following the law.

That said, there is still much that could be done to improve this development and integrate it into adjoining parkland. After all, a 2001 study commissioned by the city recommended using the land to create “Rome’s Central Park.” Natural corridors along Burwell Creek and through adjacent wetlands, accompanied by walking trails and boardwalks, would connect Ridge Ferry Park and Jackson Hill and make the property something more than just another big box shopping center.

To achieve these improvements, the Rome City Commission must take action…and they should, given what the Commission is asking of taxpayers.

New Citi Center Site Plans

New Citi Center Site Plans

First, the Commission has agreed to sell the property to Ledbetter Properties—some 80 acres of city-owned greenspace—for $600,000 ($7,500 per acre). Comparable commercial property has recently sold for more than $100,000 per acre.

The fire-sale price was agreed upon largely because of the costs involved in developing in wetlands and upon more than 50 acres of floodplain, including the cost of cleaning up an abandoned city landfill on the property. Unfortunately for city taxpayers, the City’s memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Ledbetter Properties outlines that they–not Ledbetter Properties–will be on the hook for much of these development costs through Tax Allocation District (TAD) financing.

Participants in CRBI's 7 Hills 3 Rivers Adventure Race splash through Burwell Creek.

Participants in CRBI’s 7 Hills 3 Rivers Adventure Race splash through Burwell Creek.

In fact, the MOU even requires the City to reimburse Ledbetter Properties for “wetlands delineation and mitigation” expenses—costs that have nothing to do with fixing the old city landfill and would be incurred at virtually any large development project.

To date Ledbetter Properties has spent more than $1 million on the project; it is still unclear how much of those expenses might be reimbursed by the city. Likewise, the $1-3 million bill for “fixing” the landfill will be picked up by taxpayers.

Commissioner Wendy Davis, at the commission’s Nov. 24 meeting, astutely raised questions about these issues and learned that because the developer does not have cash on hand to pay these expenses, the city will be forced to issue a bond to fund the development. This is more bad news for city taxpayers. Because TAD bonds are inherently more risky, the city will pay a higher interest rate on this bond, resulting in increased finance charges on this debt.

TAD financing is a sweet deal for the developer and a sour deal for taxpayers. If the same shopping center were built elsewhere, the city would realize not only the benefits of new jobs and increased sales tax revenues, but also substantial increases in property tax revenue.

Under TAD financing, property taxes generated by Citi Center will be diverted from city coffers to pay off the TAD bond. These taxes that might otherwise fund schools or pay police officers and firefighters, could be diverted for a period of up to 30 years.

Spring in the Burwell Creek property. CRBI is encouraging Ledbetter Properties and the City of Rome to preserve natural corridors through the Burwell Creek property to connect adjacent city parks: Jackson Hill and Ridge Ferry Park.

Spring in the Burwell Creek property. CRBI is encouraging Ledbetter Properties and the City of Rome to preserve natural corridors through the Burwell Creek property to connect adjacent city parks: Jackson Hill and Ridge Ferry Park.

Romans might get another big box retailer, but we also loose a beautiful natural area in the heart of our city while being collared with millions of dollars in unnecessary debt.

If taxpayers are to give up this much, the Rome City Commission should demand that the Citi Center project expands Rome’s recreational trail system by preserving natural corridors along Burwell Creek and through adjacent wetlands.

Oostanaula River

The City of Rome is blessed with abundant water supplies in the Etowah, Oostanaula and Coosa rivers, but more efficient use of these resources can translate into economic growth without some of the associated public costs of that growth.

In September, the Coosa River Basin Initiative presented a report to the Rome City Commission detailing how the city could reduce water use by 28 percent by implementing a handful of common sense water efficiency measures.

For instance, if homeowners in some 14,000 of the city’s residences replaced just one old water-wasting toilet with a new high efficiency toilet, 430,000 gallons of water could be saved daily. Add up the other measures detailed in the report and 1.7 million gallons a day could be saved.

Understandably, the water department and the commission are reluctant to pursue many of the measures suggested by CRBI. During recent years, revenues have declined steeply as large water users (Mohawk, Northwest Georgia Regional Hospital and others) have closed their doors. At a time when revenue is down, why would the department want its customers to purchase even less water? And, why conserve when we have abundant water? After all, about 19 billion gallons a day flows down the Coosa, and the city pumps only about 7 million daily.

Currently, Water Department Director Leigh Ross and his crews are balancing the cost of implementing water efficiency measures with the benefits derived from those investments. An ongoing leak detection program aims to reduce water loss in the system to 10 percent. Currently, the city can’t account for about 1 out of every five gallons it pumps from the river due to leaks and other losses). This important work must continue.

The sun drops behind the Robert Redden footbridge at the mouth of the Oostanaula River in downtown Rome. Photo by Amos Tuck

The sun drops behind the Robert Redden footbridge at the mouth of the Oostanaula River in downtown Rome. Photo by Amos Tuck

But, over the long-haul, state and local governments—and citizens—must do more to use existing water supplies more efficiently. Today’s cost-effective investments in water efficiency can prevent high-cost investments in new pipes and water treatment facilities down the road.

For example, in recent years Rome has spent some $30 million to upgrade and increase the capacity of its sewage treatment plant. If the city can grow while keeping water use near current levels, further expansion of that plant can be postponed or forestalled indefinitely—saving taxpayers millions.

Around the country, other communities have shown that aggressive water efficiency measures pay dividends. Boston avoided $500 million in water system expansions by investing $40 million in water efficiency measures. Likewise, New York City avoided $200 million in costs associated with expanding its water system by replacing some 1.3 million water-wasting toilets.

It’s simple: better use of existing water supplies saves us money—as individuals and as collective taxpayers.

Unfortunately, that much ballyhooed “culture of conservation” that we heard so much about during recent record droughts has been slow to take hold—both at local and state levels.

During the past three years, Gov. Nathan Deal’s administration has thrown $196 million at new dams and water supply reservoirs—many of questionable need. Meanwhile state funding for water efficiently has been anemic. From 2010 to early 2013, the administration funneled just $10.7 million to help local governments better use existing water supplies.

The state must do more to facilitate water conservation and efficiency programs, and at the local level, leaders must act to implement these programs. Becoming a more water efficient community translates into economic growth without many of the high-cost public investments associated with that growth.

Water conservation makes financial sense and insures that our most vital resource will be available in abundance for our children and grandchildren.

CRBI's Swimmable Water Action Day event attracted more than 50 tubers, floaters and swimmers to downtown Rome.

CRBI’s Swimmable Water Action Day event attracted more than 50 tubers, floaters and swimmers to downtown Rome.

While bicycling along the Oostanaula River recently, I slipped beneath the bypass at Rome’s State Mutual Stadium to find a bobcat nestled in the grass, stalking, I presume, one the many rabbits that call that area home.

I have traveled thousands of miles in wilderness settings, hiking trails and paddling rivers, and it takes a leisurely ride down a paved city bike trail to see my first bobcat in the wild.

I’ll take it as a talisman of the good things that are happening on and along our rivers.

During the past two weekends, the Coosa River Basin Initiative (CRBI) led more than 220 people down local rivers on canoe trips and floats (See photos from Aug. 2 Etowah River Paddle). Down in Euharlee, Ron Thomas at Euharlee Creek Outfitters reports that his tube, kayak and canoe rental business on the Etowah is the best its ever been.

People are returning to our rivers—and discovering them for the first time—in droves. And, it’s about to get even easier to experience these watery treasures.

Upstream from Euharlee, the City of Cartersville just completed—with financial assistance from CRBI—a new canoe and kayak launch at Ga. 113. And, within the next few weeks, Bartow County, in partnership with CRBI, will break ground on a much-needed public boat launch and parking area on the Etowah at US 411 between Rome and Cartersville.

Taking the plunge into the Etowah River near Cartersville.

Taking the plunge into the Etowah River near Cartersville.

After each of the trips we led during the past two weekends, we heard comments like: “Why we haven’t done this before?” “We had a blast!” and “I never knew!”

If you grew up between 1950 and 1980, it is likely that you view our rivers as waste receptacles—scary places filled with sewage, industrial waste and all manner of filth. For the better part of the 20th century, they were just that. But in 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, and since then we have eliminated much of the pollutants that once tainted our rivers.

In Rome, where toilet paper, raw sewage and textile waste once floated downstream, last weekend some 50 swimmers floated on tubes and pool lounges, splashing and diving and dipping in the water. (See the Swimmable Water Action Day Video on You Tube)

If you are a child of the 21st century your view of the river is likely much different than your parents or grandparents.

Earlier this year, after CRBI volunteers led a group of students from the Murphy-Harpst Children’s Home on a 13-mile paddle down the Oostanaula River, we received this note from one of the group’s chaperones:

“At one point the young man in my boat told me “thank you.” When I asked why, he said, “For letting me go.” I asked if he had a good time, and he said: “Someday when I have a family, I am going to do this with them. It’s the best day I ever had.”

This from a young man whose own family had been torn apart by dysfunction and abuse.

Over the past 40 years, communities have taken action to improve the health of our rivers. Now those cleaner, swimmable rivers are changing people.

There’s still plenty of time left this summer to get out and experience our rivers. CRBI has five paddle trips, an Adventure Race and a cleanup planned before the end of September, and on Aug 23 you can take a ride on a power boat or float a homemade raft down our rivers during CRBI’s River Revelry—A Biodiversity Bash.

Step into the water and see what our rivers can do for you.

Is moving mass quantities of water across North Georgia's mountains, ridges and valleys really a viable water supply option?

Is moving mass quantities of water across North Georgia’s mountains, ridges and valleys really a viable water supply option?

Water planners in North Georgia want to explore the possibilities of creating a “water grid” in North Georgia that would enable water to be moved from as far as “Union County to Floyd County,” according to information presented to the Coosa-North Georgia Regional Water Council Meeting Wednesday at Tellus Museum in Cartersville.

The Council, created by the state as part of the Comprehenisve Statewide Water Management Plan in 2006, continues to meet and coordinate water supply planning efforts across North Georgia.

Brooke Anderson, director of the Etowah Water & Sewer Authority, likened the plan to the power grid that ensures electricity for homes and businesses, and said the study will determine if such a plan would be feasible or if it was “a bad idea that just needs to go away.”

I can help Mr. Anderson answer that question: It’s a bad idea that doesn’t even need to be studied. 

Moving water around is much different than moving electricity. It requires miles and miles of pipes and not just a few megawatts of electricity. And, in case the water planners haven’t noticed, North Georgia’s landscape isn’t exactly flat. Water would need to be pumped hither and yonder, uphill and around ridges, at exorbinant costs.

In fact, shortly after discussion about a North Georgia “water grid,” Jud Turner, director of Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division, speaking to the gathered water planners, lampooned the idea of moving water from the Tennessee River to Atlanta, noting that it was not a gentle slope downhill from Chattanooga to Atlanta.

The bottomline–moving mass quantities of water is a highly expensive proposal. And, it comes with costs to the health of our rivers and streams; not to mention the economic health of communities that might be on the downstream end of massive water diversions.

Mass diversions of water across North Georgia could deplete donor rivers and streams, impacting other water uses such as recreation and farm irrigation.

Mass diversions of water across North Georgia could deplete donor rivers and streams, impacting other water uses such as recreation and farm irrigation.

Rather than investing in studies about how we can move water around, doesn’t it make more sense to invest in finding ways to help communities use the water they have more efficiently?

Efficiency projects conserve both water and power. If we can use our water more efficiently, we don’t have to…

Invest in costly plans to pipe and pump water across the state

Spend millions building new dams and water supply reservoirs

Argue with fellow citizens whose water is being diverted to another part of the state

While interconnectivity between neighboring water systems should certainly be explored to mitigate any water supply emergencies (another part of the Council’s planned study), the idea of moving mass quantities of water across North Georgia needs to be buried. And, I suspect once the $75,000 state grant money is spent, that will be the study’s conclusion.

That said, the Council’s efforts, and those of the North Georgia Water Resources Partnership, a group originally spearheaded by former CRBI Board President and Floyd County Commissioner Jerry Jennings, are to be commended.

Unlike other water councils around the state, the North Georgia group is steadily moving forward with implementing its plan. This includes getting local governments to develop master plans for water supply, implement water conservation projects, improve wastewater treatment plants and control polluted run off to protect the health of our streams, rivers and lakes.

They are making water a priority and that’s a good thing.

Joe Cook

May 1, 2014

 

 

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

 

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