From Flexibility Flows Sound Water Policy

January 7th, 2005 by Leave a Comment

By Benita M. Dodd

Environmental organizations have great success in rallying support around their causes, and their traditional targets, industry and business leaders, would be first to admit it. It’s an uphill battle to overcome their sound bites and grass-roots fervor.

Sometimes, however, even when a legitimate concern is resolved the rallying cry lives on. It’s the environmental equivalent of Craig Shergold, the 9-year-old cancer-stricken boy who wanted enough greeting cards to get into the Guinness Book of World Records. He broke the record with more than 16 million cards. That he broke it in 1991, that he’s now a healthy adult who doesn’t want any more cards, somehow became irrelevant. Hundreds of millions of cards later, his 1989 appeal still makes the rounds.  

The truth was likewise lost amid emotional comments at the last meeting in 2004 of the state Board of Natural Resources. According to the Department of Natural Resources, at least 75 percent of river miles assessed fully or partially meet water quality standards, as do 86 percent of lakes and 88 percent of estuaries assessed.

The board meeting was dominated by discussion of Senate Bill 460, the Stream Buffer Protection Act sponsored by State Sen. Casey Cagle (R-Gainesville) in an attempt to gain flexibility in Georgia’s stream buffer regulations. He had proposed allowing the piping of streams on land where water flows less than 25 gallons per minute, a move that could have allowed more efficient use of land.

Variously denounced by environmental groups as a developers’ dream, the “mud bill” and the “Stream Buffer Destruction Act,” the ensuing law became a directive to the board to adopt new rules by the end of the year with “specific criteria for the grant or denial by the (Environmental Protection Division) director of requests for variances” on stream buffers. At the December board meeting, opponents recited tale after anecdote of rivers running red and lakes filling with silt, and demanded tougher buffer requirements.

EPD Director Carol Couch, reminding the board that the Legislature mandated regulations by year’s end, reinforced that problems with water quality are not the product of lax regulation but of a lack of resources at the state and local level to enforce regulations.

Stream buffers are, of course, vital to the health of water resources in the state, and should be respected to protect the environment. Georgia law requires a 25-foot buffer (on either side) for streams, and a 50-foot buffer for trout streams. Local ordinances reach up to Cobb County’s 200-foot buffer for Nickajack Creek. Variances are not easily obtainable.  

But a restrictive one-size-fits-all policy is hardly sound environmentally or economically for Georgia, where regulations are already among the toughest in the nation. A drainage ditch, gully or trench is not an ephemeral “stream”; streams, rivers, lakes and ponds are not equal, nor should they be regulated as such.

The reasonable board-approved criteria provide much-needed flexibility. A property owner may pipe or pave over a ditch where water flows for a short period only after significant rainfall, where the flow is from runoff and not ground water and downstream water is not harmed. Technical guidance will follow. The rules as written, with mitigation requirements where the EPD sees necessary, should not cause environmental degradation, according to Couch. Three staff members will be added.

Cagle says he is pleased with the criteria, which he describes as “a very good compromise on a very difficult issue between the private property rights relative to environmental concerns.”

“What this will allow is a mechanism by which property owners can develop their property in an environmentally responsible manner, and at the end of day that’s all we can ask,” he said Thursday.

Given Georgia’s budget challenges, Cagle proposes resolving DNR’s enforcement challenges not in additional funding, but in prioritizing spending and tasks. It’s clear that the agency’s historical underfunding and increasing mandates are incompatible and that prioritizing is long-overdue. When it comes to air quality and water quality, Georgians no longer need to be scared or overregulated with inflated tales of nonexistent crises.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency, the state DNR and the facts point to an ever-improving environment, not that you’d ever know it from the headlines, protests and fund-raising campaigns. Every legislative or regulatory change is a catastrophe from which our children/land/water/trees/air/wildlife (choose one) must be saved from greedy developers/industries/politicians (choose one) with more laws/fees/government employees (choose one).

Georgia’s corporations and tax-paying citizens alike desire an attractive environment that enhances the quality of life in this state; it’s good business and good sense. The good news is that to get there, we need not relinquish our pocketbooks or property rights.

Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (January 7, 2005). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.

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