Altamaha River Georgia
Altamaha Riverkeeper
P.O. Box 2642 | Darien, GA 31305 | Tel 912-437-8164 | FAX 912-437-8765
 
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Georgia Should Enforce Our State Wetland Laws

By James Holland, Altamaha Riverkeeper

All life, as we know it, revolves around water.

Thanks to an abundance of natural resources, Georgia's economy is augmented by billions of dollars annually. Keeping our streams and wetlands healthy is a critical part of the future of our environment and economy. Sport fishing, hunting, wildlife watching, commercial fishing and the booming eco tourism trade are clearly reliant on a supply of healthy natural resources. Floodplains and wetlands are the lifeblood of these industries. However, if we continue to take away, reduce, and degrade these fragile and ecologically important systems, there will be no need for the marinas, bait and tackle shops, and outfitters that make up a large part of our economy. Without healthy rivers and streams, even the Wal Marts and the Bass Pro Shops could divest themselves of their extensive sporting goods.

There are constantly more plans for larger and larger sub divisions and shopping malls throughout our State. Where is the planning for maintaining affordable outdoor recreation and natural forests, river corridors, and coastline? Are we becoming a society who settles for a few public state owned lakes and recreation areas? Will these limited areas accommodate our hunger for fishing, hunting, and wildlife watching? I don't think so. For the State of Georgia to continue to disregard wetlands and their primary functions is an extremely critical mistake to our environment and to us. Wetlands are essential to a healthy watershed and its inhabitants. Our quality of life is dependant on more than sub divisions and shopping centers.

In the Altamaha Riverkeeper office, we get phone calls weekly from citizens with pollution. Calls come pouring in with problems, such as: sediment leaving construction sites, the ditching and filling of wetlands, violations in stream buffers, and degrading timber harvesting practices. Citizens also report problems to their local authorities but often these problems are ignored or only half-heartedly assisted by the local environmental enforcement officials. Considering the taxpayer is paying their salaries, these people need to do a better job at what they are hired to do. Hundreds of environmental violations go unreported as well. At this rate of accelerated loss of wetlands, stream degradation, and water pollution, our natural resources cannot sustain themselves.
Recently, I gave a presentation on the Altamaha Riverkeeper for the Cassina Garden Club of Georgia on St. Simons Island. During the question and answer session, our conversation turned towards environmental enforcement laws. I made the comment that Georgia had no state laws to protect our wetlands. Many of the ladies were stunned to learn that our state does not protect these very fragile ecologically important systems.

I had heard for years, since I became interested in protecting the Altamaha River Watershed, that there were no state laws (only federal laws) to protect our wetlands.

Apparently, I should have taken heed of the old adage; "believe nothing you hear and only half of what you see". The day after my meeting with the Garden Club, I received a response on a previously filed wetland complaint from the Army Corps of Engineers. The response letter was not exactly what I was hoping for so I decided to take a closer look at the Erosion and Sedimentation Act and the Georgia Water Quality Control Act. After reading the two acts, I think I was mistaken about Georgia not having state laws to protect our wetlands.

Excerpt from the Georgia Erosion and Sedimentation Act

State Waters; Defined As:

" State Waters" means any and all rivers, streams, creeks, branches, lakes, reservoirs, ponds, drainage systems, springs, wells, and other bodies of surface or subsurface water, natural and artificial, lying within or forming a part of the boundaries of the State which are not entirely confined and retained completely upon the property of a single individual, partnership, or corporation, except as may be defined in O.C.G.A. 12-7-17(7).

My Interpretation:
The definition of State Waters as defined by Georgia Code covers any and all waters that are not confined on a single ownership property. In other words, if the water flows through, over or under anyone's property and is not naturally contained on that property the water is Waters of the State. This definition also covers wetlands because wetlands are bodies of surface or subsurface water.

Land Disturbing Activity; Defined As:
" Land Disturbing Activity" means any activity which may result in soil erosion and the movement of sediments into State Waters or onto lands within the State, including but not limited to clearing, dredging, grading, excavating, transporting, and filling of land, but not including those practices to the extent described in O.C.G.A. 12-7-17(7).

My Interpretation:
Dredging or filling of land is included in the State's definition of a "Land Disturbing Activity" (LDA); why aren't LDA Permits for wetlands required by the EPD?

If the Erosion and Sedimentation Statute aren't cause enough to require EPD to protect our wetlands; take a look at excerpts from the Georgia State Water Quality Control Act (GSWQCA).

Excerpt from Georgia Water Quality Control Act

12-5-30. Permits for construction, modification, or operation of facilities which discharge pollutants into waters; permits for discharge of dredged or fill material into waters and wetlands.

(a)Any person who owns or operates a facility of any type or who desires to erect, modify, alter, or commence operation of a facility of any type which results or will result in the discharge of pollutants from a point source into the waters of the State shall obtain from the director a permit to make such discharge. Any person desiring to erect, modify, alter, or commence operation of a facility which will result in such discharge but which is not discharging such pollutants as of July 1, 1974, must obtain such permit prior to the discharge of same. Any person who is operating a facility which results in such discharge as of July 1, 1974, may continue to make such discharge pending final action by the director on the application for such discharge permit, provided that such application has been filed with the director by September 29, 1974; and provided, further, that such discharge does not present an immediate health hazard to the public. The director, under the conditions he prescribes, may require the submission of such plans, specifications, and other information as he deems relevant in connection with the issuance of such permits. The director may, after public notice and opportunity for public hearing, issue a permit which authorizes the person to make such discharge, upon condition that such discharge meets or will meet, pursuant to any schedule of compliance included in such permit, all water quality standards, effluent limitations, and all other requirements established pursuant to this article.

(e) Notwithstanding any other provision in this code section, the director may issue permits, after notice and opportunity for public hearings, for the discharge of dredged or fill material into the waters and wetlands of the state, in accordance with the standards and criteria set forth in Section 404 of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972, 33 U.S.C. Section 1344, as amended by the Clean Water Act of 1977 (P.L. 95-217), upon receiving delegation of such authority, except that this subsection shall not authorize the director to issue permits with respect to projects under review by the United States Army Corps of Engineers as to which a public hearing has been held before July 1, 1974. In administering such a program, the director is empowered with the authority to take such action as is set forth in Section 404(h)(1)(A) through (H) of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972, 33 U.S.C. Section 1344, as amended by the Clean Water Act of 1977 (P.L. 95-217).

No person covered by this subsection shall discharge dredged or fill material into the waters and wetlands of this state except in a manner which complies with this article and Section 404 of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972, 33 U.S.C. Section 1344, as amended by the Clean Water Act of 1977 (P.L. 95-217).
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There may be amended articles or rules buried somewhere that only an experienced person from the legal profession would know about. The Georgia Water Quality Control Act is made up of legal language and others may interpret 12-5-30 differently than I.

However, the Erosion and Sedimentation Act (E&S) is also very clear about what is and what is not "waters of the state". The E&S Act is very clear that surface and sub surface waters are "waters of the state". Wetlands areas are both surface and sub surface waters and are protected by Statute.
The part of the E&S Act that relates to land disturbing activities also covers dredging and filling of land. To do either, you need a land disturbing activity permit, therefore, to dredge or fill a land, a permit from the State is required.

The first sentence of 12-5-30 recognizes that a permit is required for discharge of dredged or fill material into waters and wetlands. Paragraphs (a) and (e) go even further; stating how the Director may issue a permit for this type activity. As a matter of fact; all of 12-5-30 relates to the requirements for a permit, how to obtain a permit and what constitutes a violation of the permit.
The language in 12-5-30 is written in such a manner that if you were to allow a pollutant (in this case sediment) to enter a wetland, it is a water quality violation. In other words, it does not have to be a flowing stream for sediment to become a water quality violation.

It appears to me that Georgia does have state laws in place to protect wetlands. My interpretation of these laws is that you can not fill wetlands because they are waters of the state. So why does a resident of Georgia have to go to the federal level, the United States Army Corps of Engineers, with a wetland disturbance complaint?

The State of Georgia's elected officials must protect our natural resources and stop ignoring an important part of our heritage. This means they must stop being the "yes boys" to all the quick buck artists who appear to be in control of our resources. Our natural resources are a wealth that belong to all of us not just a few.

A word from the author: I write articles solely for the purpose of environmental education and awareness. Please use them as you see fit.

The Altamaha Riverkeeper is working to protect and restore the Altamaha from its headwaters in the Ocmulgee, Oconee, and the Ohoopee to its terminus at the Atlantic Coast.

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