Ga. Water Coalition urges legislators to protect Georgia’s water

By Guest Columnist CHRIS MANGANIELLO, policy director for Georgia River Network

More than 150 conservation advocates from the mountains to the coast are making sure their voices are heard at the Capitol – urging legislators to cast votes for clean water. In the wake of the Flint, Mich. drinking water crisis, nothing could be more important than securing clean water for all Georgians.

Chris Manganiello

Chris Manganiello

And yet clean water is not a given for many Georgians. Residents of Cairo, in Grady County, face high levels of arsenic in their well water. In Juliette, north of Macon, rather than seek the source of polluted groundwater, local and state officials switched residents from private wells to city water. And in Waycross and surrounding counties, residents remain convinced that groundwater contamination is the cause of a multiple cancer cases in the area.

These serious threats to our water and health are the reason the Georgia Water Coalition, a consortium of more than 230 organizations representing more than 250,000 Georgians, advocates for stream protections, the state’s drinking water, and private property.

For instance, all of Georgia’s waterways are supposed to be protected by a 25-foot buffer or natural area that keeps water clean, protects habitat for fish and wildlife and prevents damage to streamside property, but currently Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division does not have the tools to enforce this law on all streams.

Georgia mountain stream

Legislation pending before the Georgia General Assembly would protect streams, as suggested in a 2015 ruling by the Georgia Supreme Court. Credit: verdant123.com

In a ruling last summer, the Georgia Supreme Court recommended the state’s Erosion and Sedimentation Act (E&S) be fixed if legislators intended for all of Georgia’s streams, creeks and rivers to be protected by a 25-foot buffer.

House Bill 966, sponsored by state Rep. Johnnie Caldwell, Jr. (R-Thomaston), a former judge himself, does just that. The bill, which has strong bi-partisan support, fixes the E&S Act by replacing confusing language dealing with how buffers are measured and calls for these buffers to be measured from the “ordinary high water mark” of streams.

HB 966 recognizes that when we protect Georgia’s streams with buffers, we also protect property rights. It should be adopted by our legislators.

Unfortunately, the GWC is also fighting bills that roll back some of those protections.

Senate Bill 326, introduced by state Sen. Rick Jeffares (R-McDonough), would create an unworkable system by handcuffing local governments’ ability to properly review plans for large developments, and in effect cause greater downstream property damage by allowing more mud in our rivers, lakes and streams.

The measure proposes two harmful changes to the E&S Act.

groundwater arsenic poisoning

Signs of Arsenicosis include spots on the hands. Credit: web.worldbank.org

First, the bill would require all plan reviewers to be licensed engineers. However, most of the local governments and the Soil and Water Conservation District offices responsible for reviewing construction plans cannot afford to staff these positions with professional engineers.

The bill also would reduce the time for application and plan review from 45 to 14 days. Currently, a 14-day window is not enough time to conduct a thorough review of a permit application, including site visits and necessary due diligence to ensure that developers’ plans will keep dirt from washing off of construction sites and fouling downstream water bodies and property.

Legislators should send SB 326 to the legislative graveyard.

While our rivers lakes and streams are the state’s primary drinking water source and deserve protection, the state’s groundwater resources are also critical.

That’s why state Sen. William Ligon (R-Brunswick) introduced Senate Bill 36. Current Georgia laws and regulations do not provide enough protections for our groundwater. There are no adequate state requirements for monitoring, testing or reporting the volume or extent of contaminated waters that reach an aquifer.

SB 36 passed the Senate with only three dissenting votes during the 2015 session.  The bill is now stalled in the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee. The bill does three things:  it affirms the public nature of aquifer resources; it confirms the private property right to undiminished natural water quality from the resource; and it requires the Department of Natural Resources Board to create rules that will protect groundwater resources.

Clean drinking water, and lots of it, is critical to Georgia’s economy and communities. When individuals, corporations or the state pollute Georgia’s drinking water, they are abusing a public resource. We cannot stand by and allow such abuse to happen.

Editor’s note: Manganiello is the author of a new book, “Southern Water, Southern Power: How the Politics of Cheap Energy and Water Scarcity Shaped a Region.” He also blogs at the Georgia Water Wire.

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