Coastal Georgia’s unique scenic quality is dominated by beautiful vistas across vast areas of tidal marsh.
These natural areas are so treasured and vital to our way of life that they’ve been protected under the Georgia Coastal Marshlands Protection Act since 1970. They also are very important to fisheries and migratory birds that contribute a billion dollars or more annually to the region’s economy.
In 1978, our marshes gained added protection when Georgia adopted the Erosion and Sedimentation (Control) Act (E&S) that established vegetated buffers along all “waters of the state” including coastal marshes. These buffers filter out pollutants that are carried by rain from upland areas toward the marsh. At the same time, buffers help retain the visual quality of the marshfront by keeping homes and other structures at least 25 feet back, while also reducing the risk of flooding when tides are driven landward by wind.
Under an astoundingly bad ruling by state regulators, these important buffer benefits are being taken away.
Last week, on Earth Day, Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division Director Judson Turner announced a radical policy change that will eliminate protective buffers along Georgia’s tidal marshes. This came as a result of a dubious, convoluted reinterpretation of language in the 1978 Georgia Soil E&S Act, used to protect waters of the state.
Although the wording in question was the technical excuse for EPD’s directive, the consequences of revoking buffer protection along the marsh weren’t considered.
The EPD action appears to be a political fix in the guise of far-fetched legal rationale. This decision discounts the end purpose of the E&S law, which is to safeguard Georgia’s waters. The marsh cannot be protected with a buffer that is submerged, as it would be under this new EPD policy.
Georgia’s highly productive tidal marshes, more than 300,000 acres, are about a third of those remaining on the East Coast, and they provide vital protection of upland areas during major storms.
Lost protection of marsh buffers in Georgia threatens disastrous consequences of public concern:
• Areas that were protected along the marsh edge will be built in, exposing new homes and others structures to storm damage and flooding.
• Cost of flood insurance and disaster recovery will rise accordingly.
• More pollution will degrade tidal marshes because critically important filtration benefits of vegetated buffers will be lost.
• Georgia’s billion-dollar ecotourism and recreational fishing industries will suffer as tidal spawning areas and wildlife habitat become impaired.
• Seawalls will be built along marsh edges in futile attempts to protect development in areas previously serving as buffers, causing more damage to marshes due to erosion at the base of those seawalls.
The public interest in protecting Georgia’s prized tidal marshes is seriously harmed by this ruling. Reckless coastal development will surely be the end result of this disastrous policy shift, and it must not go unchallenged. I strongly urge concerned members of the public to call, email or write EPD and state legislators to voice their opposition to this remarkably bad decision.
• Call Gov. Nathan Deal at 404-656-1776 or go to his website to email him.
• Call EPD Director Judson Turner at 404-656-4713 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
• Call coast legislators listed at www.legis.ga.gov.
Kyler is executive director of the Center for a Sustainable Coast on St. Simons Island.