Sustainable Georgia: Protecting Water Quality
In my debut “Sustainable Georgia” column last January, I lamented the lack of resources available to monitor our water quality. Georgia is both a business-friendly and an environmental state, and this issue sits squarely in the middle of those two qualities. Fortunately, there are many entities seeking the middle ground.
Our beautiful state doesn’t function in a vacuum. Millions go into operating the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which is augmented by a fund-raiser called “Weekend for Wildlife” that takes place each February on Sea Island.
The DNR is a microcosm of the kinds of growth issues that have rocked the state, from the mountains to the coast with all kinds of swamps, lakes and a half-million acres of marshland in between. DNR staff work with many businesses, from utilities to agriculture, including foresters, miners and farmers. Georgia’s natural assets and our ability to provide water are all connected.
The DNR is also implementing, through its Environmental Protection Division (EPD), the Comprehensive Statewide Water Management Plan. Ten councils, comprising a total of 300 members appointed by the Governor, Lieutenant Governor and Speaker of the House, began the development of the regional water plans; they submitted a statewide plan that was approved in November 2011.
Executing the plan hasn’t been easy in today’s economy. State water leaders in both the public and private sectors should be commended for successful conservation, land use and reuse efforts all over the state.
The EPD often functions as an intermediary on behalf of citizen groups representing not just industry executives, ecologists and well-heeled hunters but real mom-and-pop business folk.
The Georgia Water Coalition is a 20-year-old alliance of 180 organizations working together to protect our water. The coalition holds the opinion that Interbasin Transfers (IBTs) should be more regulated. Their “Dirty Dozen” list of endangered Georgia Rivers released in 2011 provides a road map for protecting our river network.
The Georgia River Network is a loose coalition of Riverkeepers and recreational enthusiasts seeking to establish a statewide watershed network. Formed in the late 1990s, it has established a “water trails” map to encourage outdoor recreation.
The Georgia Conservancy, founded in 1967, also seeks to establish a statewide water-monitoring network. Currently headed by former Lt. Gov. Pierre Howard, it is partnering with the DNR and the Association County Commissioners of Georgia on the Coastal Georgia Land Conservation Initiative to preserve marshland and implement protective development standards.
Among other conservation efforts, the Nature Conservancy of Georgia, over the last four decades, has created a 42-mile corridor of protected land along the banks of Georgia's “Amazon,” the Altamaha River, home to more than 120 rare or endangered species. Working with partners like the DNR, the conservancy has helped protect nearly 100,000 acres, cleaning harmful chemicals from the water that supports the health of Georgia’s coast.
Passed in the throes of our water wars with Alabama and Florida, the 2010 Water Stewardship Act was a step forward for the state and has been followed by subsequent steps that show today’s leaders still have the ear of these influential groups.
The EPD has reformed discharge permitting to account for the rise and fall of river levels on the Ogeechee River in the wake of a massive fish kill in 2011.
“We’ve done some groundbreaking work in the permitting,” says Jud Turner, EPD director. “Now, as the river goes down as a result of drought, the discharge is tied to volume [limited to 10 percent], so if it’s low enough and the limit is exceeded, [those permitted] will have to suspend production.” Turner says he will look at applying this rule to other rivers in the state.
There are still significant threats to Geor-gia’s water network, which is why the pantheon of resources that has formed to protect, enhance and fuss over our water is more important than ever. I hope we can work together to implement strategies that will permanently sustain our water network.