Georgia's main 'environmental protection' agency created an Earth Day fiasco that was astounding.
On that occasion, EPD issued a “directive” declaring that marsh buffers—a 25-foot-wide no-build strip of upland kept in its natural state—will no longer be honored under Georgia’s Soil Erosion and Sedimentation (E&S) Act.
That reversal in policy has far-reaching implications, inferences, and risks—political, environmental, and economic.
Given that this colossally reckless decision was made by EPD during an election year, with Governor Deal’s go-ahead if not under his direct command, it seems clear that those in state leadership are utterly clueless about how much Georgians care about protecting our tidal marshes.
A revealing indication of public concern is that last week, within 24 hours after our friends at Georgia Sierra Club issued an action-alert on this issue, nearly a thousand people had signed a letter of complaint sent to the Governor about EPD’s ill-considered decision. This level of response is unprecedented.
Georgia’s unique coastal landscape is dominated by vast vistas across tidal marshes. Residents and visitors alike cherish them as an essential element of the region’s character. And not only are these hundreds of thousands of grass-covered acres strikingly beautiful, they are among the world’s most prolific ecosystems.
Renowned UGA ecologist Eugene Odum determined over a half-century ago that tidal marshes, as measured in volume of food and fiber generated, are more productive than the most valued Midwestern farmland.
Some 70 percent of near-shore and off-shore fisheries depend, directly or indirectly, on these marsh-dominated intertidal areas for habitat and food. Updating Odum’s 1974 estimate of the value of marsh productivity to current dollars reveals an astounding $15,000 (or more) an acre per year, which yields a total of at least $5 billion a year in services provided by all Georgia’s marshes, about a third of those remaining on the East Coast.
In light of these realities, it is stunning that Georgia’s leaders have chosen to eliminate the no-build zone that had helped protect our marshes ever since the E&S law was passed in 1978.
Worse yet, Georgia—like other coastal states—faces escalating threats from flooding, storm surge, and related weather extremes as sea level rises at an increasing rate. This means that marsh-front and shore-front areas along our coast are at ever greater risk due to well-documented climate trends, and now made more hazardous by the reckless EPD action discarding a protective buffer that helped offset such risks.
The only explanation for this policy reversal offered by EPD director Judson Turner is that there had been some confusion about administering the buffer along the marsh.
As a long-time coastal environmental advocate in Georgia and a veteran observer of the marsh-buffer program, I think Turner’s rationale is a crudely contrived rationalization meant to advance an opportunistic, politically-motivated agenda.
Removal of the buffer will instantly create more developable area on Georgia’s coast. For instance, a 10,000 square-foot lot with a marsh boundary of 100 feet would gain 2500 square-feet of buildable area, or an increase of about one-third, depending on local zoning set-back requirements.
Multiply this windfall of buildable land-area across hundreds of parcels along Georgia’s marshes, and speculative land-deal profits quickly ensue.
Likewise, pollutants degrading the marsh will mushroom as coastal development intensity increases, while the filtering benefit of the buffer is eradicated.
It doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to connect these dots. Chalk up another crime against the public on the rap-sheet of Georgia’s usual suspects who lead our notoriously corrupt state government.