Balancing the Protection of Natural Resources and Private Property Rights

Below is a guest post by Senator Steve Gooch, the sponsor of Senate Bill 299.  This legislation provides flexibility to local governments when they seek to establish watershed protection standards and the Council firmly believes this bill is a step in the right direction for the balance of property rights and protection of our natural resources. We have been told there will be floor amendments to the legislation, but the amendments still allow the legislation to serve as a much needed balance for the local development community.
Guest Post: Senator Steve Gooch 
Do you know how much water a family of four uses in one day? Let’s break down the numbers. A washing machine, on average, uses 25 gallons per load. Brushing your teeth will use one gallon per minute (if you leave the water on). Taking a shower will require two gallons per minute-and that’s only if the shower head has been manufactured within the past few years. Older shower heads can use up to five gallons per minute. A dishwasher can use up to 10 gallons of water per load, depending on the efficiency.

Although estimates vary, an average family of four will use anywhere from 320 – 400 gallons of water in one given day. Water is an essential element of our daily lives, which means it’s important to make sure we are using it conservatively and keeping it free from pollution. This is why the State of Georgia has set minimum standards for watershed protection.

First of all, because I’m sure many of you are wondering-what is a watershed? A watershed is an area that drains to shared water sources such as lakes, streams or aquifers. These areas cross county and municipal boundaries, are linked by common water bodies and helps protect local water resources. Furthermore, every single one of us lives in a watershed, and we are all responsible for the actions that affect the integrity of this area.

Current law says the Department of Natural Resources may develop minimum standards for the protection of natural resources statewide, including watersheds. However, these standards are “one-size-fits-all” and not customized for local needs. One of the most burdensome requirements is a 300-foot buffer mandate for streams seven miles upstream from a source that provides drinking water for the area. This mandate means that property owners are kept from building on or making improvements to their own land, regardless of the precautions taken to preserve the watershed.

I have been working towards clarifying and improving these regulations since 2001 when I was elected Lumpkin County Commissioner.  At that time, watershed standards were tied to the ability to receive state loans and grants. When Lumpkin County did not adopt these standards, we lost the ability to receive these funds. Eventually, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) decided to repeal standards adoption as a condition for state loan and grant funding.

Over the years, there have been many public hearings held and legislation proposed regarding Georgia’s watershed management regulations, and one common idea keeps resurfacing during these discussions: the suggestion that if the buffer zone is decreased, the regulations for monitoring and inspection must increase. Although this appears to be a good idea, the enforcement of this idea would be very difficult on a state level.

However, the enforcement of these increased regulations on a local level would not be as difficult-and this is why I drafted SB 299.  This bill would clarify minimum standards for watershed protection and place this enforcement with local governments, who would be allowed to draft a customized watershed protection plan that best serves area needs. Plans would be required to include all measures taken to ensure water can still be treated to meet drinking water standards and also remove the 300-foot buffer zone mandate.

I firmly believe in the protection of our natural resources and that we must do all we can to preserve our water sources. Buffers act as natural filters and remove sediment and nitrates from water even before it’s manually treated. But there is still a discrepancy on how large these buffers must be to actually work-and that a small buffer may be just as effective as a more sizeable buffer. The problem with our current buffers is the “one-size-fits-all” regulations, not the buffers themselves. It should be noted that SB 299 in no way, shape or form reduces the 50 foot trout stream buffers that currently exist on North Georgia streams.

The passage of SB 299 would give local governments oversight of watershed management regulations and protect landowner rights. More importantly, it would provide stronger guidelines than a sole 300-foot buffer for protecting drinking water sources. The bill is the result of many open conversations with stakeholders, local officials and the EPD, and I am confident this bill is taking the right step towards more efficient water conservation practices.

I was scheduled to present SB 299 in the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee meeting last week, but due to the winter storm, the meeting was cancelled. I look forward to presenting the bill in committee this week with Lumpkin County Commissioner Doug Sherrill, who will be testifying in support of SB 299. I also expect several other commissioners to testify in favor of the bill.

The Council for Quality Growth commends Senator Gooch for bringing this legislation forward and supports passage of Senate Bill 299.