Editors Note: Since the publication of this column in our March print edition, the bills introduced to protect waterways and communities from coal ash pollution died in the House Natural Resource Committee, when Chair Lynn Smith (R-Newnan) refused to allow a vote on them.
By Sally Bethea
“Cast your bucket where you are,” said the celebrated orator Booker T. Washington more than one hundred years ago.
In my career, I’ve tried to do this – to make the most of the situation where I have found myself – by focusing on environmental issues in my hometown, in my state.
Despite the alarming actions being taken in our nation’s capital that could destroy environmental progress achieved in the past 40 years, I take some comfort in work being done here at home. A good example is the Georgia Water Coalition, which cast its bucket at the State Capitol fifteen years ago.
In a move unusual for that time, four environmental organizations and a foundation developed a collaborative agenda and shared financial resources. Importantly, they learned how to work with different organizational styles and cultures to achieve common goals.
Today, the Water Coalition is made up of more than 230 groups including garden clubs, homeowner and lake associations, rural residents, business owners, sportsmen’s clubs, conservation organizations, professional associations and religious groups; collectively, the coalition represents a quarter of a million Georgians.
The Water Coalition’s bipartisan work is galvanized around a defining principle: the surface waters and groundwater of Georgia are public resources to be managed by the state in the public interest and in a sustainable manner to protect natural systems, meet human and economic needs and account for the effects of climate change.
Over the past fifteen years, the Water Coalition has won significant victories on behalf of all Georgians, while building credibility and solidarity among participating organizations. During the current legislative session, its priorities are coal ash, buffers along waterways and stopping rollbacks of environmental protections.
Fortified by breakfast and plenty of coffee, a hundred members of the Water Coalition gathered in a church hall near the Capitol on a rainy morning in mid-February to review legislative strategies and targeted bills. Then, they marched across the street, as the sun emerged from the clouds, and joined forty more colleagues who arrived by bus from the coast; the citizen lobbyists talked to legislators about coal ash, stormwater, stream buffers, plastic trash and more.
Coal ash – a toxic byproduct of coal-fired power generation – requires proper disposal so that it does not contaminate our waterways. The Water Coalition’s legislative solutions include community notification, prohibition of storage near drinking water sources and treatment of contaminated water prior to discharge into rivers. Legislative prediction: hopeful, but uncertain.
The Water Coalition has long worked to protect vegetated buffers adjacent to rivers, streams and lakes to naturally filter pollutants. This year’s legislative goal: agreement on a clear method to measure buffers for regulatory purposes. Legislative prediction: the matter will be put in a study committee where it may die, which unfortunately appears to be the goal of those preferring to develop, rather than safeguard, these areas.
A rollback bill proposed by Sen. Frank Ginn would prohibit local governments from charging a stormwater collection and disposal fee, as some now do, for properties that use the government’s stormwater system to transport water offsite. Not only are these fees an excellent revenue source to address flooding and storm-related pollution, the state should not limit local options, according to the Water Coalition and allies. Legislative prediction: The proposal is on its way to a study committee, this time for a welcome burial.
Money is always a major topic during the 40-day legislative session. This year, Governor Deal’s proposed budget for Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division is meager, as usual, which will continue the downward spiral in the agency’s ability to carry out its responsibilities.
As the new head of the U.S. EPA threatens to dismantle his federal agency, there will be more pressure on state agencies to protect our water, air and land. With limited state funds and diminishing political will to handle additional responsibilities, the Water Coalition and similar alliances will become increasingly essential to defend our natural resources.
Get involved! For more information, see garivers.org/gawater/index.html.
Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper , a nonprofit environmental organization whose mission is to protect and restore the drinking water supply for nearly four million people.