Georgia’s marshes are at risk if state bill requiring 25-foot buffer isn’t passed

By Guest Columnist ROBERT RAMSAY, president of the Georgia Conservancy

When Sidney Lanier penned his famous poem – “The Marshes of Glynn” – in 1875, he extolled the beauty and wild scenery of Georgia’s salt marsh.

Though he feared this incredible landscape would be spoiled, Georgia’s coast has remained largely intact and even flourished at a time when many of the East Coast’s dynamic salt marshes have been lost or critically impaired.

Robert Ramsay

Robert Ramsay

It’s no accident that Georgia’s coast is among the healthiest in the nation. Because of the foresight of our local, state and federal governments, along with the advocacy of concerned citizens and dedicated environmental organizations, our salt marshes continue to be one of the most productive ecosystems on the planet – and they remain a place sought for recreation and relaxation.

Their protection has been an economic and ecological success.

Our salt marshes play a key role in sustaining Georgia’s economy. They are nursery areas for commercially important species of fish and shellfish, including shrimp, blue crab, snapper, grouper and other finfish and shellfish. Recreation and tourism are also a key part of Georgia’s coastal economy, valued at more than $2 billion annually.

And they are critical to the state’s biodiversity. Herons, egrets, redwing blackbirds, oysters, red drum, sea trout, blue crabs, white shrimp and other marine life and wildlife, including several endangered and threatened species are commonly found in Georgia’s salt marshes.

For 40 years, Georgia’s Erosion and Sedimentation Act (E&S Act) of 1975 has been instrumental in creating and maintaining the coastal environment that we have today. For every bad development, one can point to an endless horizon of protected beach, upland forest and salt marsh. The E&S Act has sheltered our coastline, fostered tourism and incubated our commercial and recreational fisheries.

Marshes of Glynn County

Marshes of Glynn County (Photo: Ogeechee Riverkeeper)

Unfortunately, much of that is now at risk. Last year, on April 22 (Earth Day), the state Attorney General determined that a key element of the E&S Act, which the state Environmental Protection Division (EPD) had understood to require a 25-foot vegetative buffer between our salt marsh and upland development, was not enforceable.

As a consequence, the buffer that had long protected Georgia’s salt marshes from erosion and direct pollution no longer existed. Our salt marshes have lost an extremely important protective measure.

Since April, the Georgia Conservancy has worked with EPD, coastal legislators and our conservation partners to restore the 25-foot salt marsh buffer along Georgia’s coast. The goal is to create legislation, introduced by coastal legislators, that gives EPD the authority it needs to enforce the 25-foot salt marsh buffer. This bill must be passed and signed into law this year.

With the introduction of Senate Bill 101 and its passage by the state Senate, many of our criteria have been met. Because the bill is narrowly tailored and focused on codifying an environmental protection that has been traditionally observed, Senate Bill 101 enjoyed near unanimous support in the Senate.

Now, with SB 101 before the state House of Representatives, there are some who say the bill doesn’t go far enough, that it’s not perfect. While their goals are admirable, they may not be feasible. The pursuit of a perfect bill may result in letting a very good bill – one that, for the first time, establishes an enforceable salt marsh buffer in Georgia – slip away.

Last week, SB 101 passed the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee with no amendments added. It is to be taken up by the House Rules Committee, which is to determine if it will be sent for consideration by the full House.

If SB 101 is not passed by both chambers and signed into law in 2015, Georgia’s salt marsh will remain unprotected for at least a year, and probably much longer than that. That outcome is entirely unacceptable, risking irreversible damage to “the length and breadth of the marvelous Marshes of Glynn” and to rest of the Coastal Empire’s fragile salt marshes.

For more information, please visit the Georgia Conservancy website.

Editor’s Note: The Georgia Water Coalition is among the organizations seeking to have lawmakers amend the bill. The coalition released this statement on March 12.

3 replies
  1. neillherring says:

    SB 101 by Sen. Ben Watson as passed the House Natural Resources committee requires a 25 foot buffer along the salt marsh unless the property owner can afford to build a bulkhead at the edge of the marsh.  Construction of a “Watson Wall” means no buffer is required.  This is unacceptable legislation written to benefit wealthy people that will harm the marsh.Report

  2. MelaniePollard says:

    @neillherring Agreed! Where did the Watson Wall come from? We need more unbiased protection everywhere. As an avid scuba diver, I’ve personally viewed the destruction of our coral reefs when visited multiple times over just a 5 year period throughout the Caribbean. It took 1,000’s of years for those reefs to form and we’re destroying them in a matter of decades. They’re out of site – out of mind with most of the population. Obama has been trying to install legislation on this and establish more preserves in the oceans. But we need to do more on our coastlines and rivers. We’re working here in Atlanta, to try and protect and preserve our beautiful tree canopies which are intrinsically tied to our rivers, oceans and wildlife. Developer power is actively clear-cutting acres by the day of specimen hardwood forests… And we’re worried about our water availability and cost?Report

  3. David Kyler says:

    whatever the merits or faults of the much-debated marsh-buffer bill
    (SB101), the record of state Environmental Protection Division
    exemptions through buffer “variances” does not justify confidence in the
    practical outcomes.
    EPD records indicate that about 1,500 buffer variances were
    awarded across the state between the fourth quarter of 2006 and the second
    quarter of 2014. That’s nearly 200 a year, about 86 percent of those that were
    applied for — a phenomenal number of “exemptions” allowing a wide range of
    activities, including paving, clearing and other significant buffer
    The conclusion to this assessment is clear: If the public
    expects the proposed marsh-buffer bill to reliably protect Georgia’s
    prized tidal marshes, variance procedures must be carefully reviewed
    and, as
    justified, improved through the state Department of Natural Resources
    rule-making process. Under prevailing political forces at work in
    Georgia, achieving this rigorous reform will be extremely challenging.

    Such a review should consider not only the criteria and
    corresponding information required in making variance decisions, but a
    of the obligation of marsh-front property-owners to help protect the
    productivity and health of adjoining public marshlands. It is ironic
    that many property-rights advocates who readily accept zoning set-backs
    fiercely oppose marsh buffers, yet marsh vitality, sustained by the
    buffer, is essential to protecting coastal real estate from storms and

    Variance-procedure improvements should entail some method for EPD’s
    periodic assessment of variance-related buffer activities and their impacts.
    Currently, there is no such requirement and therefore the
    cumulative probability of serious damage to vital resources is mounting
    yearly.  These problems compound threats to public waterways and
    wetlands —
    essential habitat to valuable fish and wildlife as well as being vital
    to water
    quality and flood-protection. 
    Any marsh-buffer legislation will only be as effective as
    EPD’s variance process allows. It is imperative that variance procedures are
    responsibly reviewed and strengthened through rule-making.Report


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