Summary of comments made to the
Joint Committee on Sound Science Initiative, Upper Floridan Aquifer (May 27, 2005)

By David C. Kyler, Executive Director, Center for a Sustainable Coast

The Center for a Sustainable Coast is a non-profit, membership-supported organization established in 1997 to protect the public interest in issues related to coastal Georgia's growth, economy, and environment. By way of introduction, I have lived on Georgia's coast since 1977, when I moved here from New York State - I've lived here longer than anywhere, and I truly love the area. During most of that time I served as a regional planner for the Coastal Area Planning and Development Commission and its successor, the Coastal Regional Development Center, until I helped create the Center for a Sustainable Coast in 1997. More than most environmental groups, the Center examines the economic implications of natural resource issues in making recommendations about priority public issues.

First, I'd like to emphasize that water resource management is more than simply water supply. As important as water supply is, it is imperative that decision-makers look beyond supply to explore wider issues, including some that have been mentioned by prior speakers over the past two days, but which deserve more attention. We know that fresh water from both surface and ground sources is supplied to inter-tidal areas that are highly productive coastal ecosystems, and that these relationships have profound importance to the coastal economy. Managing water to sustain these areas through state policy must be given high priority for various reasons related to the interests of coastal communities.

It can be readily documented that nature-based businesses in coastal Georgia generate over one billion dollars a year in economic activity. A recent study by DNR found that coastal recreational fishing alone produces more than $500 million in business annually. In estimating at least $1 billion as the annual total, I also include another $500 million, which represents about one fourth of the coastal region's total tourism activity, according to state figures. (This proportion is based on national studies that find at least one quarter of all tourism is nature-based, or eco-tourism - and that this is a continually growing share)

What is one billion dollars? It is one thousand million - and just one percent of that amounts to $10 million a year. When considering the $17 million in research that's gone into studying the Upper Floridan, as substantial as that sum may be, it represents only a modest portion of the annual value of the resources that are dependent on Georgia's water resources. Given that the $1 billion figure is based on the resources and nature-based business of only 11 counties (the state's definition of the "coastal zone" used in the Coastal Management Program), while the area of Georgia using Upper Floridan using is 24 counties, the proportion of research funding spent on the 11 counties is about one percent of one year's worth of nature-based business activity on the coast. Moreover, because the research was spread over a seven year period, each year that investment amounted to only one-seventh of one percent of the value of business activities that are based on the region's water-dependent natural resources. When we consider the need to invest more in research required to improve Georgia's water resource management, these economic benefits must be used to give perspective and justification for meeting the costs.

Another aspect of economic benefit provided by coastal ecosystems that often gets overlooked is protection of property from flooding and storm surges. While all wetlands provide protection from flooding caused by rain, tidal wetlands offer the added benefit of storm surge protection - surges caused by wave action driven by high winds during major storms and hurricanes. The health and survival of these tidal wetlands depend on retaining fresh water flow - and is another critical aspect of water management that must be considered. Although the value of this coastal property protection has never been estimated, it is obviously massive - probably something on the order of 100 times the amount previously estimated for nature-based business. A report issued five years ago by FEMA, and produced by the Heinz Center, found that of all the nation's coastal areas, the Southeast had the most property value at risk from storm damage. In fact, the value of property at risk in the Southeast was more than that of all other coastal regions of the country combined. And, during the intervening five years, we all know that the amount invested in coastal development here has greatly expanded that previous figure. To limit property damage done by storms, we must protect the tidal wetlands that buffer these areas and to do so will require careful water resource management.

As we address these broader issues related to water management, Georgia should adopt performance measures that will help determine and direct effective water management efforts. Ideally, these measures will help integrate environmental permitting (water withdrawal, wastewater discharge, marshlands protection, and other DNR-regulated activities), monitoring, assessment, research and public policy. By unifying these various functions essential to comprehensive water management, we will greatly improve the coordination of activities required to accomplish more effective results, and to get these results faster. Working together, we can help redefine self-interest to achieve more responsible use of natural resources to serve our needs, which can then be used to guide Georgia's future growth.

To ignore or undervalue environmental functions supported by Georgia's waters would be to fail to properly manage water resources, with grave implications for the state's future. Allocation of our water resources must be based on objective consideration of all existing uses serving human needs, no matter how indirectly. Clearly, a substantial portion of current business activity and public vitality rely on healthy aquatic, estuarine, and marine ecosystems, which in turn depend on the flow and quality of fresh water within the vast watersheds that drain into the Atlantic through coastal Georgia. Any decisions to allocate (or re-allocate) water in support of further economic development must be made with a conscious recognition of potential trade-offs, no matter how incremental, including new uses that may, in effect, deprive existing users of water needed for sustaining responsible business activities.

To make such assessments, more information is needed that will help clarify the amount, timing, and type of fresh water flow required to support ecosystem functions/services under all conditions, including extended drought. (We know that drought caused marsh die-back but not the extent to which human activities made drought effects worse than they would have been otherwise - because of disruptive impacts on wetlands, rivers, and/or ground water.) Until such decisions can be based on accountable and reliable information that protects the justifiable interests of existing water users, they should be made with extreme caution. Effective water management protects not just the environment, but the millions of property owners and businesses whose interests squarely rest on the quality and resilience of water-dependent natural systems.
Sample performance measures for Comprehensive Water Resource Management:
  • Water quality (by watershed, river/stream, or aquifer)
  • Water flow (volume, timing, and correlation with rain events, seasons, and drought)
  • Per capita water use (water efficiency of users by type)
  • Fishery contamination by type and source of contaminant
  • Fishery productivity & diversity
  • Area of functional wetlands (tidal and freshwater)
  • Flooding & storm damage - property loss, frequency, and areas affected
         (Note: must distinguish between unwise land use as distinct from reduced storm
          protection caused by compromised natural buffers such as tidal marshes.)

The Joint Legislative Committee will meet again in Brunswick in late August (23 - 25). For details on location and agenda, please call the Environmental Protection Division or Vicki Gibbs, Administrative Assistant with the Georgia State Senate (404-656-9222). Members of the Joint Coastal Georgia Sound Science Initiative Study Committee are:

Representative Lynn Smith, Co-ChairSenator Ross Tolleson, Co-Chair
Representative Terry Barnard Senator Jeff Chapman
Representative Buddy Carter Senator Jack Hill
Representative Bob Hanner Senator Eric Johnson
Representative Ron Stephens Senator Tommie Williams

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