In April 2015, Gulf Power Company shuttered the more than sixty-year old coal-fired Scholz Generating Plant, located on the banks of the Apalachicola River near Sneads in Florida’s Panhandle. Retired and operating coal-fired plant sites all include mountains and ponds full of toxic ash, which is a by-product of generating electricity.
Coal ash ponds—which are often sited immediately adjacent to major rivers or lakes—leak and fail, sending pollutants into water communities need for drinking and other purposes.
In 2014, Earthjustice filed suit on behalf of Apalachicola Riverkeeper, Waterkeeper Alliance and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy because Scholz is not in compliance with the Clean Water Act. The facility’s unlined coal ash pond is leaking—which constitutes an unpermitted and illegal discharge—into the Apalachicola River. In a settlement, Gulf Power, a subsidiary of Atlanta-based Southern Company, agreed to a specific long-term coal ash clean-up plan. This settlement adds Florida to a list of southern states working to address coal ash pollution and its long-term threats.
Is current coal ash storage in Georgia a danger to our rivers? Given two of the nation’s largest coal ash spills in Tennessee (2008) and in the Dan River (2014), plus agreements to clean up coal ash in North Carolina and South Carolina, a plausible answer would be: yes.
On June 15, 2015, the Georgia Supreme Court issued a ruling on a critical issue for Georgia’s state waters. The court’s disappointing and narrow decision asserts only state waters with “wrested vegetation”—or clearly defined beds and banks—are entitled to protection from land disturbing activities by 25-foot vegetative buffers as set forth in the Erosion and Sedimentation Act (1975). Please read the case summary (page 4) and final decision (and dissent).
The decision stems from a legal suit filed on behalf of Georgia River Network and American Rivers by Southern Environmental Law Center on August 3, 2012. We challenged the Georgia Environmental Protection Division’s (EPD) issuance of a stream buffer variance to Grady County for construction of the Tired Creek fishing lake. After multiple rounds in lower courts agreed with us, EPD and Grady County filed an appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court where the case was argued in January 2015.
We hoped the Supreme Court’s decision would correct a decades-long, inequitable and confusing EPD policy that historically protected some state waters, while not protecting others that lacked “wrested vegetation.” Protective buffers are easily measured along streams, creeks and rivers with clearly-defined banks, where moving water has undercut the adjacent land and visibly removed or prevented the growth of plant life due to the effects of fast-moving water.
However, these areas of “wrested vegetation” are not common to all waterways in Georgia. For instance, south Georgia’s slow moving and black water rivers do not generate enough velocity to ‘wrest’ vegetation. Additionally, coastal marshes are influenced by tides that typically leaves vegetation intact. For about a decade, an old state policy protected coastal marshes lacking wrested vegetation with a buffer, but other waters of the state that did not have wrested vegetation were left unprotected. We wanted to see that inequitable and confusing policy corrected.
While a majority of the Georgia Supreme Court justices did not agree, we did win some protections in another branch of government. And there is more work to be done.
Where Did This Court Case Come From?
In 2010, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agreed to allow Grady County, in southwest Georgia, to build a 960-acre public fishing lake on Tired Creek, despite substantial criticism from state, federal and other stakeholders. Construction on the lake, which began with timber clearing and an official “groundbreaking” in August 2013, will put Grady County taxpayers on the hook to pay for a $20,000,000 lake, and will alter downstream flows on the Ochlockonee River for property owners and communities in Grady County and Florida.
As of March 2015, the dam has been constructed. But the project is now on hold because the county has failed to implement a Corps approved mitigation plan, a plan designed to off-set the environmental impacts of the lake’s construction. The county cannot fill the lake until the plan is implemented.
In our 2012 legal challenge, we argued EPD failed to require Grady County to obtain buffer variances for impacts to over 100 acres of state waters lacking “wrested vegetation” on the site.
In the first round of litigation, an Administrative Law Court judge agreed with us that all state waters do not need to have “wrested vegetation” in order to receive buffer protections as defined in the Erosion and Sedimentation Act.
EPD and Grady County successfully appealed this decision in a second round of legal debate in superior courts.
In the third round, on July 16, 2014, the Court of Appeals of Georgia agreed with us: all state waters are legally protected by a 25-foot buffer.
EPD and Grady County eventually and successfully appealed this decision to the Georgia Supreme Court—the fourth, final and most recent round. But there was another wrinkle in the process.
Earth Day Memo & SB 101
On April 22, 2014—which is also celebrated as Earth Day—Governor Nathan Deal’s appointed Director of EPD, Jud Turner, introduced a new level of confusion. EPD’s Earth Day memo reversed the agency’s decade-long policy of requiring buffers on all tidal creeks and coastal marshlands. The Director erased the 25-foot buffer between coastal uplands and coastal waters where “wrested vegetation” was not present. Technically, buffer protections on the Georgia Coast eliminated by EPD’s April 22, 2014 action were reinstated by the July 16, 2014 court decision regarding Grady County’s buffer variance.
Georgia legislators were keenly aware of these agency and judicial turns as the General Assembly’s 2015 session commenced. In anticipation of this week’s Supreme Court ruling, Senate Bill 101 was introduced to restore coastal marsh buffer protections that were lost on Earth Day 2014. SB 101 passed both chambers and will establish a 25-foot buffer in the Erosion and Sedimentation Act to specifically protect only the coastal marsh from sediment pollution.
Governor Deal signed SB 101 in a notably unpublicized way for such a widely supported bill. On May 3 he publically defended the state’s protection of gopher tortoises. Three days later he quietly signed SB 101. At the time, Georgia and South Carolina were trying to land a big fish: Swedish automaker Volvo’s first North American auto factory. South Carolina ultimately set the hook, and the deal hinged on resolving environmental issues effecting the proposed factory sites.
Tomorrow (Thursday, June 18), EPD will launch a stakeholder process in Brunswick to revise rules and regulations associated with the Erosion and Sedimentation Act as required by SB 101. You can find more information about the meeting and how to submit comments here; it’s free and you can register here.
The bottom line: SB 101 protects the coastal marsh while the Supreme Court decision leaves thousands of miles Georgia’s waters that flow to the coast without protections.
The science is sound and clear: buffers work. Fresh water and saltwater buffers act like filters between land disturbing activity and the water we need to drink, fish in and swim in, that wildlife needs to live, or that boats need to float. In general, the wider and less disturbed the buffer is, the more effective the buffer is for nature protection, pollution control, and wildlife conservation in fresh water and saltwater environments.
From the mountains to the coast and across south Georgia, and for upstream and downstream communities, buffers are critical for preserving the health of creeks, streams and rivers, as well as our marshes and other state waters from pollutant-contaminated runoff from disturbed land, roofs, driveways and roads. Buffers are also the most cost-effective means to protect water quality and property values.
There are clear and established methods for measuring a buffer in the absence of wrested vegetation. Georgia’s waters do not have to be brown or stained with red clay: they can flow clear again.
The Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) is currently evaluating a draft National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit for the Rayonier Performance Fibers LLC facility (Rayonier) in Jesup, Georgia.
Georgia River Network (GRN) staff, members and partners have a special interest and direct relationship with the Altamaha River.
GRN has submitted a comment letter and asked EPD to reject the draft permit for many reasons.
Rayonier’s new NPDES permit must be a bold step away from the past and a step into a cleaner future for all Georgians and for healthy river flows in the Altamaha River.
A Legacy of Water Quality Problems
On June 23, 1954, Rayonier celebrated the Jesup pulp mill’s opening day. The mill has historically produced cellulose fibers used in the manufacture of products such as rayon and cellophane, and eventually diapers and food additives, and more recently, mobile device and television parts.
In early September, 1954, there was a reported fish kill in the Altamaha River in the vicinity of Jesup, according to a U.S. Public Health Service Report. On September 12, one week later, a second kill was reported and called “one of the greatest fishing scourges ever to occur in Georgia waters,” leaving “dead fish by the thousands” lining the Altamaha River’s banks for forty-miles between the mill’s 25,000,000 gallons per day discharge point and the Atlantic Ocean.
Per a consent decree brokered by Georgia’s Attorney General between Rayonier and three parties seeking compensation for damages to downstream private property after the 1954 fish kills, Rayonier agreed to “hold wastes dumped into the Altamaha River to quantities that will not kill fish when diluted with the river.”
One year later in 1956, “a slimy substance” began coating fishing nets downstream of Jesup. At the time, commercial and recreational anglers blamed Rayonier for “ruining edibility and salability of fish and crustacean life in the river below the plant.” The slime—sphaerotilus—is a naturally occurring bacteria that thrives in waters rich in nutrients. In the Altamaha River’s case, a combination of pulp mill waste-stream by-products and low levels of dissolved oxygen contributed to a proliferation of the sphaerotilus burdening fishermen’s nets.
For about two years, Rayonier used kerosene as a foam control agent, which was present in the plant’s effluent.
Despite passage of the Georgia Water Quality Control Act (July 1, 1957), and before the federal Clean Water Act (1972), the accepted state policy and solution for pollution was dilution.
In early 1958, Rayonier doubled the mill’s production capacity, thereby increasing the mill’s total ground and surface water withdrawals to 48,000,000 gallons per day, and discharges into the Altamaha River to 50,000,000 gallons per day.
Georgia’s Environmental Agency Takes a Stand
In 1966 and because a “crude slime” continued to effect the Altamaha River, Rayonier installed a primary waste water treatment facility but only when ordered to do so by R. S. “Rock” Howard, executive secretary of the Georgia Water Quality Control board—a predecessor-agency to EPD. And in 1967 the Water Quality Control board ordered Rayonier to install a secondary waste water treatment facility, which had still not been installed by March 1, 1970 as required.
All the while, the 25,000,000 to 50,000,000 million gallons per day discharge continued. By all accounts and for the above reasons, since 1954, the river’s character has been forever changed according to commercial fisherman, sport anglers, conservationists, leisure seekers and state regulators.
How We Got To Today
For over a decade, according to Draft 2014 Integrated 305(b)/303(d) List: 2014 Rivers/Streams, a 20-mile stretch of the Altamaha River from ITT Rayonier to Penholoway Creek has been listed as “Assessment Pending for Designated Uses”—which in this stretch is “fishing”—because EPD has not developed “a numeric translator for the narrative criteria for color before it can be determined whether water quality standards are being met.”
In 2008 and in response to citizen complaints lodged by the Altamaha Riverkeeper, Rayonier entered into a “consent order” with EPD to reduce the color content of Rayonier’s discharge. At the time, Rayonier’s NPDES permit did not include any discharge limits on color. EPD had determined that “the color of Rayonier’s discharge had the potential to be a violation of” state and federal Clean Water Act “standards and to cause other objectionable conditions that could interfere with the uses of the river.” This was a long and complicated way of saying that Rayonier was probably illegally—according to Clean Water Act terms—discharging waste into waters of the United States. The discharges continued while Rayonier re-tooled the mill’s production lines. That consent order is set to expire in March 2016.
In July 2012, Rayonier Performance Fibers LLC submitted an application packet to EPD to renew the Jesup Mill’s NPDES permit.
In June of 2013, over 300 individuals floated over 100 miles of the Altamaha River for seven days as a part of Georgia River Network’s annual Paddle Georgia adventure. Upstream of Jesup and Doctortown—the birds, fish and sunshine, the magnificent white sand dunes, the clear and refreshing water—made the trip spectacular. Then, on June 20, 2013, I paddled from Jaycees Landing to Paradise Park, and past Rayonier’s discharge pipe and through miles of river that have carried Rayonier’s discharge for decades. The river’s character changed: the water color was different. There was a noticeable odor.
The Bottom Line
Rayonier has benefited tremendously from doing business in Georgia for more than half-a-century. According to Rayonier’s 2013 ANNUAL REPORT, the corporation executed $1,708,000,000 in sales with a net income “attributed to Rayonier Inc.” of $372,000,000 while using the Altamaha River for free. When compared to the previous year, this is a sizable $225,000,000 increase in total sales and a $93,000,000 increase in net income “attributed to Rayonier Inc.” Rayonier has the resources to do the right thing and implement proven waste management technologies.
The process of perfecting the permit should not be reduced to an argument about jobs versus the environment. If the goal is to ‘balance the environment and the economy,’ than tipping it back in the river’s court is long-overdue.
Improving the permit—and asking Rayonier to clean up the mill’s discharge—will not result in closure of the mill if the King America Finishing experience on the Ogeechee River is a guide.
EPD must incorporate explicit, and require compliance with, state narrative water quality standards and conditions found in Rule 391-3-6-.03 into Rayonier’s permit to insure compliance with the federal Clean Water Act.
Rayonier’s new NPDES permit must be a bold step away from the past and a step into a cleaner future for all Georgians and for healthy river flows in the Altamaha River.
U.S. Public Health Service, “Review of Altamaha River Pollution in the Vicinity of Doctortown, Georgia,” [March 1957], Iris F. Blitch Papers, Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies, The University of Georgia Libraries, Athens, Georgia.
“Thousands of Altamaha Fish Die; Jesup Plant’s Dumping Is Halted,” Atlanta Constitution, September 14, 1954, p. 1.
“Agreement Ends Fish Death Suit,” Atlanta Constitution, October 19, 1954, p. 24
“Altamaha Pollution Hit Anew,” Atlanta Constitution, February 9, 1956, p. 25.
“Baffling Altamaha Phantom is Unmasked by Scientists,” Atlanta Constitution, March 31, 1957, p. 1E.
“New Rayonier Unit Keyed to Flexibility,” New York Times, January 19, 1958, p. F1.
“Crude Slime covers Giant Altamaha River,” Atlanta Constitution, March 13, 1970, p. 1A.
“Jesup Mill Faces Action: State office Turns to Courts As Pollution Deadline Passes,” Atlanta Constitution, April 3, 1970, p. 14A.
Two reservoir projects have generated a good bit of local criticism and media attention over the last few months. One project—the Grady County Fishing Lake—is currently under construction. The second—Newton County’s proposed Bear Creek water supply reservoir—has been in the permitting process for years. If there were two issues residents of both communities share, it would be frustration over the projects’ mounting debt and the questionable need for the reservoirs. Both communities also share another common trait: they have contracted the reservoir consulting services of Covington attorney William Thomas Craig.
For background on the proposed Bear Creek reservoir, please start here.
In September of 2014, the US Army Corps of Engineers released a Public Notice announcing Newton County’s plans to move the dam site for the proposed Bear Creek reservoir. It’s worth noting that the dam’s original location was identified in the first permit application in 2000, and again identified in a third version of the permit application submitted in 2008. Why did it take fourteen years to determine the dam had to be moved? Newton County wishes to relocate the dam upstream from the original location “based on a revised survey of the project site” and better modeling tools.
This request to relocate the dam raised additional concerns at the local level. A vocal group of concerned tax payers seeking more transparency in government operations began asking the county attorney and commission members about the project’s management. More than 100 people packed the county’s chambers for one meeting, and have repeatedly asked for scrutiny of Newton County’s current water supply capacities and future demands, of projected population data, and of the project’s cost and management by the county attorney—who also doubles as the county’s water supply consultant.
The most recent development should be of particular interest to folks tracking reservoir projects. A previously misplaced, lost, or misdirected copy of a water supply “yield analysis” produced in 2009 was presented to the county commission in late 2014. The document eliminated the need for the county to spend an additional $86,000 on a study that had already been completed. Furthermore, the document “appears to contradict” the county water consultant’s claim on how much water was available from one of the county’s water sources during the 2007 drought.
Additionally, the draft Newton County Water Supply Master Plan, which was generated by another consultant at a cost of $240,000, was independently reviewed by the Newton County Water and Sewer Authority (NCWSA). The NCWSA is Newton County’s primary wholesale customer and would ultimately purchase water from the county’s proposed Bear Creek reservoir. Because of this relationship, the NCWSA’s rate payers are on the hook to pay for the county’s reservoir. The NCWSA’s January 21, 2015 “Technical Memorandum” reviewed the draft water master plan and concluded:
- “There is no urgency to build the Bear Creek Reservoir now.” According to the reviewers, the draft master plan relied upon faulty population projections to justify the Bear Creek proposal, and did not consider the recession’s effects on population and water consumption dynamics.
- “If Bear Creek Reservoir is built, water rates will double making the Authority one of the highest charging water utilities in the State of Georgia.”
- “The wiser use of money is to repair/upgrade Newton County’s current treatment facilities at a fraction of the cost to build the Bear Creek Reservoir, Water Treatment Plant & Transmission Mains.”
- “There are several deficiencies reported by Krebs at the two water treatment plants that should be immediately verified and if found to be correct should be immediately acted upon.”
- “There are several flaws within the report itself that deserve close scrutiny.”
When combined, the community’s own third-party evaluation of existing infrastructure, needs, and the Bear Creek proposal all cast doubt on the accuracy and exactitude of Newton County’s Section 404 application. As one local journalist reported, in Newton County’s water supply situation, the “problem lies in water management, not supply.”
We hope this development will encourage the Corps of Engineers to request the Georgia Environmental Protection Division to re-evaluate the 401 water quality certification and water withdraw permitting process in light of the NCWSA’s recent review of Newton County’s needs analysis.
In south Georgia, local folks are frustrated with the Grady County commission’s recent decision to float a $10,000,000 bond to pay for a fishing lake. You can read more about the Grady County fishing lake in the Georgia Water Coalition’s 2012 Dirty Dozen. How will they pay for a total of $25,000,000 in bond debt?
One commissioner suggested, “We have got to tighten our belts on a lot of things, and” expenses related to Tired Creek’s consulting services might be a target. This prompted a Thomasville Times-Enterprise online commentator to retort, “Well, when you have already lost your pants, it is kind of hard to tighten a belt.”
Another more plausible option to pay off the debt: Sell lake-side or water front lots.
In 2005, Grady County’s first application to the Corps of Engineers for a Section 404 permit indicated plans for a large planned community and development around an amenity lake. That application was subsequently revised and the amenity lake was transformed into a fishing lake. The permit was issued in 2010 with an “environmentally sensitive” master plan that did not include any significant property development—aside from a handful of pavilions, roads, and public access point—in the lake’s 100-foot buffer and the approximately 2,000 surrounding acres. In other words, the official Corps of Engineers approved plan does not include water front lots.
However, in 2013, the Georgia General Assembly passed legislation (HB 201) to create the Grady County Lake Authority. The authority has the power to condemn private property, to acquire and sell property, and to assume debt via issuance of bonds.
Then, in the fall of 2014, the Grady County commissioners, staff and lake authority members began openly discussing plans to sell surplus property around the fishing lake now under construction. While they claim to have no formal plans, the county commissioners, county attorney, and lake authority members are openly discussing the prospect of planning for the sale and/or development of surplus land around the lake. They have clearly been planning unofficially to plan formally.
- November 12, 2014: “Commissioners met with members of the lake authority…to set priorities for the amenities proposed, as well as the possibility of selling the county-owned land that is not needed by the county for the project.” (Cairo Messenger)
- December 4, 2014: “Norton said the Lake Authority is currently working on a grant to put in sewage and water lines to prepare for potential housing development in the future.” (WALB News 10)
- January 21, 2015: “Bryan said the authority would want to solicit consultants to do a market survey and provide information in the type of development needs in this area as well as a calculation on absorption of the surplus property. ‘The plan we have presented, we believe, lends itself well to getting the surplus property back on the tax rolls. The sooner we can do that the sooner the county will benefit from the investment it has made in this project,’ Bryan said.” (Cairo Messenger)
- January 28, 2015: “Commissioner Norton admitted the goal is to eventually sell the surplus property and the county could then begin to recover some of the investment it has made in the lake. Attorney Cauley noted that not only would the county benefit from the sale of the property but even more so by the development on the property for years to come.” (Cairo Messenger)
If it quacks like a duck, walks like a duck—it’s a duck
Local reservoir proponents in multiple locales—like Hall County (Glades Reservoir) and South Fulton County (Bear Creek)—have repeatedly asserted that proposed water supply reservoirs will not become amenity lakes. Maybe most water supply reservoirs do not become amenity lakes, but it would be inaccurate to say that houses have not popped up around municipal reservoirs and caused management problems, or that reservoirs will enhance value of undeveloped property in the reservoir’s vicinity. Bear Creek reservoir in Jackson County is an example.
Perhaps a clear sign the proposed Paulding County’s Richland Creek reservoir will not become an amenity lake is a recent report about a fence intended to surround the 305-acre reservoir. If this report is true (which it may not be), one local correctly stated: “If I’m in the fencing business, I would not want to miss that” bid request.
We have long argued that communities should stop throwing good money after the bad on reservoir projects – particularly amenity lakes disguised as reservoirs. Furthermore, the lack of transparency surrounding reservoir projects does not inspire trust among those responsible for footing the bill. In short: reservoirs for any purpose should be the option of last resort for forward thinking local leaders who are accountable to voters, taxpayers and utility rate payers.
For a decade between 1999 and 2009, the General Assembly repeatedly banned Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR)—the practice of injecting chemically treated wastewater, surface water or groundwater down into an aquifer with the intent to withdraw it later—in Georgia’s coastal region to protect drinking water.
In January 2014, Senator William Ligon sponsored SB 306 to permanently extend that moratorium. Unfortunately, the Senate Natural Resources and Environment committee did not vote on SB 306. The moratorium expired on July 1, 2014.
Over the past month, the Brantley, Bryan and Camden County commissions plus the Liberty Regional Water Resources Council have passed four independent resolutions opposing ASR and the injection of chemically treated water into the Floridan aquifer.
SB 36 and HB 116 must pass this legislative session in order to protect and preserve precious drinking water in the Floridan Aquifer.
What is ASR?
Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) is a technology where chemically treated surface water – or ground water from one aquifer – is pumped into another underground aquifer for storage. In theory, the water may be recovered later during periods of low-flow or high drinking water demand.
ASR is risky for Georgia.
The best available science and data indicate pumping chemically-treated water underground presents threats to all of Georgia’s aquifers, and can lead to increased levels of arsenic that exceed drinking water quality standards.
Pumping wastewater underground can introduce bacteria, pathogens and disinfection byproducts into Georgia’s aquifers that hundreds of thousands of Georgians rely on for drinking. Many of Georgia’s drinking-water aquifers—like the Floridan—are pristine, and we should not risk contaminating those resources, which nature has taken thousands of years to create.
Are there any ASR proposals or operations in Georgia?
ASR was recently proposed as a stream flow augmentation tool for the Chattahoochee, Flint, Coosa and other major river basins.
In 2006, ASR was considered as a waste management tool in Liberty County.
A 2012 proposal for a large southwest Georgia ASR well-field included a $1.2 billion price tag.
An ASR stream flow augmentation project is under development in Baker County and has been discussed for other parts of the lower Flint River Basin.
It is also worth pointing out that six regional water councils specifically addressed ASR. All six councils recommended first conducting research, completing studies and proper evaluation of “the best available science and data” before pursuing ASR.
ASR is prone to failure.
According to the Environmental Protection Division, a northwest Georgia ASR experiment failed because the true extent of the geology and hydrology for the area was unknown.
A 2013 nationwide survey of 204 ASR sites found 26 percent of the sites have been “functionally abandoned” or are inactive. Only 37 percent of the surveyed sites were actually operational. (The remaining 37% are in testing and study phases.)
In Florida, only 22 of 54 ASR sites are active. Only 40 percent of Florida’s ASR sites are fully functional. To date, a total of 43 wells have been abandoned or operations suspended for reasons including arsenic mobilization, excessive operational costs, or the inability to recover the “stored” or ‘banked’ water.
In South Carolina, ASR projects have developed problems including well-clogging and bacterial growth.
In North Carolina, ASR projects have been delayed by water quality, water recovery and disinfection byproduct issues.
A U.S. Geological Survey study demonstrates ASR is not always successful. Cycle-testing measures how much water can be pumped/injected underground and recovered at the surface. Of 15 sites in Florida subjected to cycle-testing, 6 were considered “Low Performance” (0-20% recovery), 6 were considered “Medium Performance” (20-40%), and 3 were considered “High Performance” (40% or more). What constitutes “High Performance” recovery? If, for example, you pump 100 gallons of water underground and you recover at least 40 gallons, you have a high “High Performance” well.
The Georgia General Assembly must ban the practice of ASR in our drinking-water aquifers, and support SB 36 and HB 116.
Why should Georgia citizens be concerned about the impacts of global climate change? The National Climate Assessment reports that global climate change is responsible for changes in precipitation patterns, rising sea levels, more acidic oceans, and increased frequency of extreme “weather whiplash.” In Georgia, changes in precipitation patterns are leading to decreased river flows, and rising sea levels are causing accelerated intrusion of saltwater into freshwater wetlands, streams and rivers. Moreover, stream and river temperatures are increasing in Georgia.
Climate change is affecting precipitation patterns that directly affect Georgia’s rivers. According to Aris Georgakakos, director of the Georgia Water Resources Institute at Georgia Tech, river flows in Georgia are decreasing as a result of changing rainfall patterns. Specifically, Georgia is seeing short periods of heavy rain and long periods of drought. Since big flows from heavy rains occur infrequently and dissipate quickly, Georgia’s rivers are left thirsty most of the time with low flows. The National Climate Assessment indicates that this pattern of lower flows under drought conditions and higher flows during floods can worsen water quality.
Professor Georgakakos’s study of the Oconee River indicates that the amount of water flowing down the Oconee River has declined approximately 50 percent over the last half-century. University of Georgia professor Todd Rasmussen and colleagues analyzed river flow statistics for the Middle Oconee River. They found that approximately 90 percent of the river’s record low flows have been recorded in the last 10 years. Moreover, U.S. Geological Survey statistics indicate that annual river flow in the Oconee River was the lowest ever recorded in 2012.
In addition to changing precipitation patterns, rising sea levels pose significant risk to Georgia’s freshwater resources with respect to drinking water supply, ecosystem habitat, and agriculture. According to the National Climate Assessment, higher sea levels along the East coast “will accelerate saltwater intrusion into freshwater supplies from rivers, streams, and groundwater sources near the coast.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) points out that the intrusion of saltwater into freshwater areas may increase the need for desalination for coastal freshwater aquifers that supply drinking water. In addition to affecting drinking water supply, the intrusion of saltwater into freshwater areas “can physiologically stress microorganisms, plants, and animals and alter metabolic pathways, rates of activity, and abundance,” according to research conducted by the Department of Marine Sciences at the University of Georgia. Moreover, as the National Climate Assessment notes, sea level rise may lead to changes in salinity and water levels at such a fast rate that local vegetation is unable to adapt quickly enough and these areas become open water.
Saltwater intrusion, in response to sea level rise, not only affects drinking water supply and ecosystem habitat, but it also affects the agriculture sector. The National Climate Assessment points out that the intrusion of saltwater into freshwater resources may “reduce the availability of fresh surface and groundwater for irrigation, thereby limiting crop production in some areas.”
Research published by the Ecological Society of America (ESA) indicates that Georgia’s rivers are getting warmer. The ESA specifically found a significant increase in water temperature in the Coosa River and Conasauga River. According to the EPA, increased river temperatures can harm aquatic organisms that live in cold-water habitats, leading to the extinction of local species. Additionally, warmer water in rivers can facilitate the invasion of non-native species, which often prey on and out-compete the native species for food, leading the native species population to suffer.
What can Georgia do to adapt to changing precipitation patterns and rising sea levels? Scientific research indicates that Georgia’s rivers and streams are suffering from changing precipitating patterns and warming water temperatures. Moreover, rising sea levels raise concerns that saltwater will intrude into freshwater streams and rivers near the coast. Unfortunately, many federal policies do not require adaptive planning for sea level rise and coastal flooding. So, what can state and local governments do to better adapt to these significant changes?
Local governments, like the City of Tybee Island, are beginning to prepare for the changes in precipitation patterns and rising sea levels by adopting methods of adaptation. A report recently published by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), entitled “Encroaching Tides,” discusses methods for adapting to climate change along Georgia’s coast. In its report, UCS mentions measures being adopted by the City of Tybee Island to address the effects of climate change. Tybee Island is Georgia’s most densely developed barrier island and a popular tourist destination that faces erosion and coastal flooding as sea level rises. For example, the Island has suffered severe sewer backups when rain and high tide occur simultaneously. To prevent sea water from flowing into the City’s sewer system during future rain/high tide events, Tybee Island has installed large diameter pipes with tide gates. See the UCS’s full report for more information.
To address sewage backup and other issues associated with sea level rise, the City of Tybee Island has collaborated with Georgia Sea Grant and the Carl Vinson Institute of Government to develop a Sea Level Rise Adaptation Plan (the “Plan”). In August 2012, the Tybee Island City Council held townhall meetings to identify adaptation actions for the Plan. The City’s adaptation actions include retrofitting the stormwater sewage system, elevating well pumps, considering innovative methods to deal with Repetitive Loss Properties, working with Georgia Department of Transportation on potential options for elevating U.S. Highway 80 several feet above its current grade, increasing nourishment of the beach, and discussing novel approaches for stabilizing shorelines. Following identification of these adaptation actions, Georgia Sea Grant and the Carl Vinson Institute of Government conducted a cost-benefit analysis that weighs these actions over a 50-year planning horizon.
Georgia’s rivers are already being impacted by climate change, but Georgia has the opportunity to make smarter choices when it comes to energy production and coastal resiliency. These choices will reduce the impacts that climate change will have on the state’s rivers going forward. The science clearly demonstrates that the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, the majority of which come from the burning of fossil fuels, into the atmosphere is causing temperatures to rise. In recent years, Georgia has begun retiring dirty coal-fired power plants to reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Georgia should take advantage of these retirement efforts by increasing the use of solar power to satisfy energy production. By relying less on the burning of fossil fuels to produce energy and focusing more on producing energy through solar power, Georgia can reduce its contribution of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In doing so, Georgia can help arrest climate change and reduce the threat of future impacts on the state’s rivers.
In the early 1990s, the U.S. Army discovered that hazardous chemicals dumped at Fort Gillem were seeping into residential drinking water wells in the neighboring city of Forest Park, Georgia. Fort Gillem was established in 1941 as a Quartmaster Depot during World War II responsible for shipping supplies to army personnel around the world. The military base became a dumping ground for a variety of substances, including engine oil, solvents, rubber, and a German mustard gas bomb.
Over time, volatile organic compounds from these substances migrated from the military base to nearby neighborhoods. The Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) responded to the discovery of these compounds in nearby neighborhoods by issuing an order calling for the Army to resolve water contamination issues at Fort Gillem. The Army responded to Georgia EPD’s concerns in 1994 by passing out bottled water to residents and shifting many Forest Park residents from private wells to Clayton County’s municipal water system.
Twenty years have passed and the base has been closed, yet known and suspected carcinogens continue to migrate from groundwater into surface water. The Army has taken some steps to remove pollutants from the base.
For example, in 2009, the Army installed two pump-and-treat systems to extract toxins from the groundwater before they migrated off the base. However, Georgia EPD was concerned that the Army was not acting efficiently enough to contain the contamination and prevent it from reaching residents’ homes. Furthermore, Georgia EPD was not convinced that the Army had sufficiently warned residents of the dangers posed by the contamination.
In June 2013, Georgia EPD’s frustration with the Army’s failure to clean up Fort Gillem resulted in a letter to Region IV of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In its letter, Georgia EPD recommended that Fort Gillem be placed on the federal list of Superfund sites unless a legally binding cleanup plan was in place by the end of that year. To date, Fort Gillem has not been listed as a Superfund site.
In 2014, the Army began conducting a vapor intrusion study approved by the Georgia EPD to evaluate whether the air in residential properties contains hazardous contaminants. However, Georgia EPD and EPA were unhappy with the Army’s failure to implement efficient mitigation measures that are set forth in the approved study. In response to the Army’s significant deviation from its approved study work plan to clean up contaminants at Fort Gillem, EPA issued an Order on September 24, 2014 under Section 7003 of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), ordering the Army to take corrective measures at Fort Gillem. EPA issued the Order under RCRA because it believed that an Order was necessary to protect the health of the community and the environment surrounding Fort Gillem.
According to the Order, the Army must conduct a survey of all water wells and springs within the area designated in the Order within 21 days. Within fifteen days of submitting the survey, the Order mandates the Army to sample and analyze the water from the wells for volatile organic compounds. Results of the sampling and analysis must be submitted to EPA within 45 days of submitting the well survey. In addition to surveying and sampling wells at Fort Gillem, EPA’s order requires the Army to connect any resident to the city’s water supply who is not already connected to the city’s water supply if the Army finds contaminants in the resident’s well that exceed the maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) of the Safe Drinking Water Act. For more information on EPA’s Order, read EPA’s press release regarding the Order.
Since the EPA’s Order was issued, the Army has hosted an information forum to get information out to residents of Forest Park regarding contamination from activities at Fort Gillem. Furthermore, and only with prodding from state and federal regulators, the Army has conducted vapor intrusion tests on roughly 68 homes and 1 daycare center. More testing will follow.
Georgia EPD and the EPA must hold the Army fully accountable for contamination at Fort Gillem and the surrounding community. Georgia EPD and the EPA must protect individuals’ health and private property values from the Army’s irresponsible behavior. Hopefully, Georgia EPD will continue this enforcement approach to groundwater contamination in Waycross and Brunswick as detailed in the Georgia Water Coalition’s 2014 Dirty Dozen report.