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Wilmington Plantation Marina Project

August 20, 2004
NOTE: Corrected final draft

Commander, US Army Corps of Engineers
Savannah District
Attn: Regulatory Branch
P.O. Box 889
Savannah, GA 31402-0889

Re: Application Number 200406890
Wilmington Plantation

New marinas, docks, and boating activities are proliferating at an unprecedented pace in coastal Georgia. Between 1995 and 2002 (eight years inclusive), there were 1,688 dock permits issued, averaging 211 a year. Although it is generally recognized that the cumulative impact of these multiple activities may be significant, such aggregate effects are not substantively considered by the state and federal agencies responsible for making individual permitting decisions.

In one county alone (Camden), there are presently plans in process for projects that would provide wet and dry storage for more than 2,000 additional boats. When considering marina and dock permits, state and federal authorities must consider both the impact of the construction and maintenance of these structures as well as the intensified disturbance of water bottoms, shorelines, and aquatic habitat caused by the concentrated use of motorized vessel that are served by these water access and vessel storage structures. The aggregate impacts of hundreds of motorized vessels clearly contribute to water contamination and the disturbance of water bottoms and shorelines, but no measurable quantitative limit on such disturbance is set when permits are issued for marinas and docks. Because no quantitative limit of impact is stated as a condition of permits for docks and marinas, there is no reliable, accountable method for protecting the public against possible adverse effects of these activities on state and/or federal resources within coastal waterways. This makes cumulative resource degradation far more likely.

We know from water quality sampling data collected and reported by the Georgia DNR's Environmental Protection Division that some 60% of Georgia waters are impaired, and that many of these impairments include threats to fish within the coastal watersheds. According to Georgia DNR's Fish Consumption Advisory Handbook, about half of the entire state's listings of contaminated fish are in coastal waters, a highly disproportionate share considering that the coastal region represents only about 7% of Georgia's geographic area. In effect, this means that the coastal Georgia fishery is about seven times more likely to be contaminated than the state's native fish stock overall.

Added to these problems are adverse conditions symptomatic of other disruptions in coastal Georgia's intertidal habitat, including a drastic reduction in the number, health, and size of blue crab. Landings data in recent years are a fraction of their average over the past 45-year period, although the cause of the steep decline in this important species remains uncertain. It is believed that there is a combination of causes, including disruption of freshwater flow brought by both drought and development activities (removal of vegetation, construction of impervious surfaces, and the ditching/filling of wetlands), plus point and non-point source water contamination.

Under federal guidelines, the Wilmington River and virtually all coastal Georgia intertidal waterways are designated Essential Fish Habitat by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council. The term 'essential fish habitat' means those waters and substrate necessary to fish for spawning, breeding, feeding or growth to maturity. [Magnuson-Stevens Act 3(100)] The SAFMC has adopted a Habitat Plan for the management of the fishery under federal law, and is pursuing an ecosystem-based approach that will improve protection of a multitude of interdependent species. In the meantime, a precautionary management approach should be taken that will help prevent or at least reduce further threats to these important areas that provide ecosystem goods and services of immense value to the state and nation.

Based on estimates made by acclaimed Georgia ecologist Eugene Odum in a paper published some thirty years ago [The Value of Tidal Marsh, Odum et al. Center for Wetland Resources, Louisiana State University, May 1974], updated to current dollars using the Consumer Price Index, the annual amount of ecosystem goods and services produced by an acre of healthy tidal marsh averages some $14,000. With some 400,000 acres of tidal marsh in coastal Georgia, the total annual value of these goods and services in Georgia alone is $5.6 billion. Another indication of the value of these intertidal areas is the annual dollar value of recreational fishing in coastal Georgia, which DNR estimates to be over $500 million. Further, we estimate that coastal Georgia eco-based tourism contributes some $500 million annually.

Despite these impressive economic contributions attributed to the coastal region's natural resources, public investment in environmental monitoring has declined relative to Georgia's state budget, and the same trend is true nationally of federal funding in proportion to the federal budget. A Georgia State University study published last year reported that during a 12-year period ending in fiscal year 2003, the DNR budget shrank by more than 30% as a share of the Georgia budget. During the same period, the state's population grew by more than 20%, compounding the burdens being imposed on air, water, wildlife and other public resources. Although no figures are immediately available to quantify the circumstances with federal functions, it is widely reported that funding for environmental protection, monitoring, and assessment has also dwindled relative to the total federal budget in recent years, while permitting standards have become more permissive.

Given the above description of current environmental conditions, known trends in resource management funding, and well documented esource values, justification for such precaution is amply evident, and therefore the burden of proof clearly rests on those who propose to further use, and possibly degrade, public resources. The merits of this rationale are amplified by the declining capacity of state and federal agencies to keep pace with the need to review permits, monitor conditions, and assess consequences of permits once they have been issued.

For all of these reasons, the Center for a Sustainable Coast believes that a permit finding for the proposed marina project at Wilmington Plantation, and all similar permits, must rest on specific, verifiable standards that include:
  • Evaluation of the initial and ongoing effects of the marina and use of the marina by boaters at the scale proposed, including impact on water bottoms, shorelines, vegetation, aquatic animals, and water quality/flow.
  • Assessment of the impact of the marina and use of the marina by boaters at the scale proposed in light of existing water quality, ecosystem productivity, and cumulative impacts on ecosystem services compared with project benefits over a period of at least 20 years.
  • Specification of the standards and methods for competently monitoring and evaluating project impacts (including reporting and information verification) for a period of at least 5 years, or until impacts stabilize (whichever is longer) and the costs of conducting complete and reliable evaluation using these standards.
  • Comparison of the costs estimated to meet the previous condition, compared with the funding and professional services available to the respective authorities (by agency/section name) that will be responsible for enforcing permit conditions and evaluating project impacts.

Once the above evaluation elements are completed, the permit decision should be based on the findings in light of the public interest objectives of all applicable legal requirements. If it is determined that proper monitoring and assessment of the project will require more enforcement capacity than that which is available at the responsible agencies, permit conditions should require that these costs be met by a contribution from the permit applicant in the amount(s) needed so that agency staff can be supplemented by appropriate qualified professional services retained and administered by the permitting agency. Given the conditions cited and current deficiencies in enforcement capabilities, these steps provide a reasonable means of meeting legal obligations to protect the public interest.

Signed,

David C. Kyler
Executive Director

cc. Susan Shipman, CRD
Carol Couch, EPD
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