Coastal Growth Steady, But Adverse Impacts Compounding

David Kyler, Executive Director
Center for a Sustainable Coast
Saint Simons Island, Georgia

Recent population projections for the Georgia coast issued by Georgia Tech say nothing new. We're growing at almost 20 percent a decade, meaning a near doubling every 35 years.

The Center for a Sustainable Coast projected a population of about 1 million by 2030 for the 11 counties in the coastal region as defined by the Department of Natural Resources, somewhat higher than the 844,000 predicted by Georgia Tech. This compares with a population of 538,469 reported in the 2000 Census.

But the accuracy of projections is not the point. Increased population will result in more land clearing and environmental disturbance than in the past - there will be larger homes, bigger lots and fewer people per household. National studies show up to twice as much land is being used per capita than in previous periods. This not only means more removal of trees and other native plants but also increased wildlife habitat destruction, erosion, stormwater runoff, and contamination of marshes, streams and freshwater wetlands.

Another factor that is especially true on the coast but often overlooked is that new development tends to be in less suitable areas, since the best land (highest, driest and least environmentally vulnerable) was taken first. That means more flooding, loss of valuable wildlife habitat and still further contamination of waterways, marshes and other wetlands.

Bottom line: To expect even proportional environmental impact will require more (and better) regulatory work due to the disproportionately adverse effects of ongoing growth. Recent decisions by the Georgia DNR board and General Assembly that weaken protection of natural resources do not offer much hope that our leadership's learning curve, or their motivation, is up to this challenge.

Several examples are particularly relevant. In December 2004 a majority of the DNR board voted to reduce protections for some headwater streams that flow into the rivers that supply Georgians with drinking water, despite the fact that a similar measure had failed to pass the state legislature earlier that year. Moreover, the board offered no follow-up monitoring to determine the consequences of their action on downstream water quality. As a result, while it is almost certain that after heavy rains more pollutants are entering our already contaminated rivers and streams, this cannot be confirmed because no analysis has been done.

Earlier, the General Assembly cut by half the buffer requirements on trout streams, which subsequent scientific analysis by University of Georgia field researchers found to be correlated with an 80 percent drop in trout population.

Then in 2005 the DNR board voted to weaken its rules for the protection of high quality waters, like Lake Lanier, when it was faced with a court decision saying that the agency had not been following its own rules. Now, despite a landmark case still being decided by the Court of Appeals, the DNR board is advancing new rules for the Marsh Act that, if adopted, will weaken protection of this vital area of coastal Georgia that is essential to fish productivity and thousands of coastal jobs.

This leads to two fundamental questions:

1. Can we tolerate even a doubling of environmental impact with a doubling of coastal population without losing substantial quality of life? Not if we want functional marshes, rivers and fish habitat.

2. Who will pay for the expanded regulatory enforcement and field monitoring that will be needed - at all levels, from local to state and federal? Though developers should pay their fair share, for political reasons it is doubtful that they will - even though the added costs would be marginal and could be passed on to consumers, adding a tiny fraction to the cost of new homes and commercial buildings.

Likewise, consider that DNR's portion of the state budget plummeted by more than 30 percent during the last decade when state population grew by almost as much. Is this the "new math" of Georgia politics? If so, it is setting a reckless course for our future, and we should go back to arithmetic and common sense.

Due to both political motives and the narrow, short-term economic interests that tend to dominate them, the indicators are not promising. Until our leaders - elected and appointed - are willing to concede the truth of this reality and honorably deal with it in the public interest, how can Georgia responsibly prepare for a future that is both prosperous and environmentally sustainable?

Instead, political concessions continue to be made for an elite few who game the system to take their money and run. After all, they must reason, if everyone who matters can fly to Montana to catch a trout, why worry?

But if all of our citizens are to be fairly considered - including future generations - Georgia deserves better.
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