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Save Georgia’s Salt Marsh

May 28, 2014
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Georgia’s regulators and the Governor’s office eliminated a key provision that protected the state’s world renowned “Marshes of Glynn.”  They announced the policy rollback during a meeting in Savannah only miles from the salt marsh that so inspired poet Sidney Lanier.  And the meeting took place on April 22 – also known as Earth Day.

What did the Environmental Protection Division (EPD) and the Governor’s office do?  They changed the way the state will define and delineate the buffers that are responsible for protecting state waters.

Fresh water and saltwater buffers act like filters between land disturbing activity and the surface water we need to drink, fish and wildlife need to live, or boats need to float.  In general, the wider and less undisturbed the buffer is, the better the buffer is for nature protection, pollution control and wildlife conservation in fresh water and saltwater environments.

According to Georgia’s Erosion and Sedimentation Act (1975), all streams, creeks and rivers are protected by an undisturbed twenty-five foot riparian buffer of land stretching outward from each side of the waterway.  Furthermore, all trout streams have fifty foot buffers.  And per the terms of the Georgia Planning Act (1989), a one-hundred-fifty foot impervious surface setback is required on each side of a stream seven miles upstream from a drinking water supply reservoir.  Undisturbed buffers help make clean water.

How does the state measure riparian buffers and setbacks?  From the top of the bank.  Anybody who has driven to the boat ramp or walked a creek knows what the banks look like.  Streams, creeks and rivers have easily defined banks where moving water has undercut the adjacent land or has “wrested vegetation,” that is, the moving water has created conditions where most vegetation cannot grow on a bank.

What about the coastal marsh – how do you delineate a buffer in places where there is no wrested vegetation?

The jurisdictional line is defined in another key piece of Georgia’s environmental legacy: the Coastal Marshlands Protection Act (1970).  This line delineates where the marshlands end and the uplands begin.  Since 1993, EPD’s policy has stated that where there is no wrested vegetation in Georgia’s saltwater marsh, the state would measure a twenty-five foot buffer on the upland side (landward) of the “jurisdictional line.”  A former CRD director offers this simple explanation about how the coastal buffer policy previously worked in the Savannah Morning News.

The Coastal Marshlands Protection Act surfaced in the wake of a disturbing 1968 proposal by the Kerr-McGee Corporation to strip mine Georgia’s salt marsh and extract phosphate to process into fertilizer.  According to author Charles Seabrook’s book Salt Marsh, the Oklahoma-based company proposed to dig down through seventy to one-hundred-twenty feet of marsh to reach the mineral booty, and to use the overburden and dredged leftovers to fill whatever marsh remained to create ‘dry’ land for development. (Think about what south Florida’s coastal landscape looks like around Miami.)

After the plan was announced, Georgia’s Governor Lester Maddox was compelled to assemble a panel to evaluate the mining proposal.  In a golden age of medicine and technology when scientists’ research was well respected and they had influential seats at the policy making table, the final report concluded that mining would be detrimental to coastal and ocean environments.  They also recommended a state agency regulate the coast and marsh; today the Coastal Resources Division (CRD is a Department of Natural Resources’ unit) provides the recommended management as well as overseeing and permitting activities that take place atop sandbars, on the beach and in the dunes according to mandates of the Shore Protection Act (1992).

While Kerr-McGee’s 1968 proposal was shot down, other threats emerged in tandem: a pulp/paper company floated the idea of draining the marsh for a pine tree plantation and a chemical company proposed to dump contaminated soil in the marsh.

All of these dangerous coastal proposals motivated one legislator to act.  In 1968, Representative Reid W. Harris (Brunswick) – with crucial assistance from Savannah attorney Ogden Doremus, a.k.a “Mr. Environment” – introduced the Coastal Marshlands Protection Act.  The bill moved out of committee but serious opposition forced the bill to wait until 1970 before it cleared the Senate.  Gov. Maddox – backed by industrial and economic interests – threatened to veto the measure.  But he ultimately signed the bill into law – on the last possible day to do so on March 27, 1970 – in response to the mountains of letters urging him to save the marshes of Glynn and coastal Georgia.

Today, the Marshlands Protection Act governs and permits activities that take place in the salt marsh and tidal wetlands.  Since the 1990s, EPD measured the marsh buffer from the jurisdictional line as determined by CRD.  And this brings us back the EPD’s Earth Day 2014 digression.

On April 22, EPD Director Jud Turner issued a memo announcing “buffers along salt marsh boundaries will be measured from the point of wrested vegetation” where it exists, but “where evidence of wrested vegetation is not present” – as is the primary case for all of Georgia’s salt marsh from Glynn County to Wassaw Sound – there will be no protective buffer at all.

The decision to no longer require a twenty-five foot buffer between saltwater marsh and upland development is in violation of the Erosion and Sedimentation Act which requires all state waters to be protected by buffers.

The decision is a direct threat to Georgia’s half-a-million acres of fresh water and saltwater marshland.  Georgia’s marshes range from four to eight miles wide and extend the full length o four one hundred mile coastline.  Georgia’s coastline – which is unlike most Atlantic coastal regions – has the second largest amount of salt marsh in the country.  This fact means Georgia’s coast makes up an estimated one-third of all the salt marshes on the East Coast.

The Coastal Advisory Panel – an appointed body of thirty local government, NGO and academic representatives who specifically advise DNR and CRD on coastal issues – formally rejected EPD’s Earth Day decision.

Some coastal local governments have decided to “do EPD’s job,” and to pass ordinances instituting their own buffer protections for the coastal marsh.

Want to help Save Our Salt Marsh?

Attend the Sustainable Atlanta Roundtable’s “Coastal peril in Georgia” event on June 6 at Southface to hear from environmental professionals.

Please visit 100 Miles for more information on how to contact elected representatives, the Governor’s office and the EPD Director.  Ask them to save the marsh and reverse this terrible new policy.

More reading on the issue here:

-Steve Caley, “Earth Day ‘present’ from Nathan Deal’s administration threatens to destroy state’s fragile coastal marshes,” in the Saporta Report

-Dave Kyler, “More Crimes and Misdemeanors,” in Connect Savannah

-Dave Kyler, “Stunning reversal threatens Georgia’s marshes,” in SavannahNow


-Chris Manganiello




One Comment leave one →
  1. May 28, 2014 4:48 pm

    A few quick notes: I meant to identify the Coastal Advisory Council as a ‘council’ not a ‘panel.’ Also, Steve Caley is an attorney with GreenLaw ( And David Kyler is the Center for a Sustainable Coast’s Executive Director (and Coastal Advisory Council member), where you can find more information about coastal issues:

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