State Court Ruling Clarifies All Georgia Waters Protected by Buffers
ATLANTA, GA—The Georgia Court of Appeals sided with conservation groups yesterday and ruled that all state waters are protected under Georgia law by a 25-foot vegetative buffer. The decision overrules the Georgia Environmental Protection Division’s (EPD) policy that only some state waters are protected by the Erosion and Sedimentation Act’s buffer provision, and also invalidates EPD Director Judson Turner’s April 2014 memorandum that stripped the protective buffer from the Georgia Coast.
“In its decision, the Court holds that the General Assembly always intended that the buffer provision would extend to and protect all state waters,” said Bill Sapp with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “As a result, under the ruling, EPD will no longer be able to take a piecemeal approach to buffer protection—requiring a buffer on some waters and denying it on others.”
“Our marshes and freshwater wetlands are home to the shrimp, oysters, fish, and game that fuel Georgia’s hunting, fishing, and tourism industries,” Sapp continued. “As the Court recognizes, the buffer provision plays a critical role in protecting these vital resources.”
The Southern Environmental Law Center filed the case on behalf of American Rivers and the Georgia River Network in 2012 after EPD failed to require Grady County to obtain a variance for impacting freshwater wetland buffers in its bid to build a 960-acre fishing lake on Tired Creek near Cairo, Georgia. After EPD neglected to correct its oversight, the groups filed a successful appeal with the Office of State Administrative Hearings to rectify the agency’s failure to require a buffer variance for impacts to buffers along wetlands on the site.
Judge Kristin Miller ruled in favor of the conservation groups in 2013, finding that the “Erosion and Sedimentation Act mandates a buffer for ‘all state waters.’” After the decision was overturned in the Georgia Superior Court, the groups appealed the case and received a favorable ruling yesterday in the Georgia Court of Appeals.
“We are pleased that the Court of Appeals recognizes that all state waters – including wetlands – are important and deserve protective buffers,” said Chris Manganiello, policy director of the Georgia River Network. “Georgia's waters are all connected and we need buffers on all state waters to ensure downstream property owners, communities, fish, wildlife and clean drinking water are protected.”
Under the law, a buffer is defined as a strip of trees and plants along a stream or wetland that naturally filters out dirt and pollution from rain water runoff before it enters rivers, streams, wetlands, and marshes. Without protective buffers, Georgia waters are at risk of becoming clogged with mud and sediment pollution.
Under the Court of Appeal’s decision, Grady County will have to place its lake project on hold and reapply for a buffer variance from EPD that accounts for the impacts to buffers along hundreds of acres of freshwater wetlands on the site of the proposed lake.
The decision also reinstates buffer protections on the Georgia Coast that were recently removed by EPD. In a memorandum EPD issued on Earth Day, Director Turner reversed EPD’s decade-long policy of requiring buffers on all coastal marshlands. Enforcement of the buffer on Georgia’s coastal marshlands is critical in preserving rare and pristine wetlands and marsh in the region from pollutant-contaminated runoff from roofs, driveways, and roads, which can adversely impact and even destroy large sections of marshlands.
“We welcome the court’s decision affirming the consistent, clear, common sense application of environmental protections across the State,” said Jenny Hoffner of American Rivers. “Protecting all our waterways ensures that the lifeblood of our communities, our clean water, is protected for generations to come.”
About Southern Environmental Law Center
The Southern Environmental Law Center is a regional nonprofit using the power of the law to protect the health and environment of the Southeast (Virginia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama). Founded in 1986, SELC's team of nearly 60 legal and policy experts represent more than 100 partner groups on issues of climate change and energy, air and water quality, forests, the coast and wetlands, transportation, and land use. www.SouthernEnvironment.org
About Georgia River Network
Georgia River Network is a statewide river conservation organization that works to ensure a clean water legacy by engaging and empowering Georgians to protect, restore, and enjoy our rivers from the mountains to the coast. www.garivers.org
About American Rivers
American River is among the leading organizations working to protect and restore the nation’s rivers and streams. Rivers connect us to each other, nature, and future generations. Since 1973, American Rivers has fought to preserve these connections, helping protect and restore more than 150,000 miles of rivers through advocacy efforts, on-the-ground projects, and the annual release of America’s Most Endangered Rivers®. American Rivers has more than 100,000 supporters, members, and volunteers nationwide and offices in Washington D.C., across the country, including an office in the Atlanta metro region. www.americanrivers.org