Above the Waterline: Is new state leadership greener?

For 20 years, I was a registered lobbyist at the Georgia State Capitol, advocating for the protection of the Chattahoochee River and all waterways in the state. Seven and a half of those years, I also served on the Georgia Board of Natural Resources, appointed in 1999 by Roy Barnes, the last pro-environment governor.

I endured 20 legislative sessions and more than seven dozen meetings of the board that makes important decisions about our air, land and water: all intense, too often frustrating, and occasionally successful, experiences that left me informed, but cynical about environmental politics in our state. Follow the money was, and remains, the most instructive advice. Still, my colleagues and I soldiered on, despite the odds. Then, I retired four years ago and, thankfully, passed this activity on to talented, younger folks and a few diehards.

This month, major changes will take place in state leadership, as Brian Kemp (R-Athens) becomes Governor and Geoff Duncan (R-Cumming) Lt. Governor. There are signs that both of these new state officials may be significantly better than their immediate predecessors on environmental issues.

While he supported the recently-passed Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act, former Gov. Nathan Deal (R-Gainesville) will not be remembered for environmental leadership. During his eight years in office, Deal appointed individuals to the Board of Natural Resources with no experience or training in environmental issues: white men, primarily, in real estate development, property management, lobbying, insurance and agriculture, most of whom contributed to his campaigns.

There was also the lengthy, and highly creative, but ultimately unsuccessful, attempt by Gov. Deal and friends to use state money to dam a tributary to the Chattahoochee River in his home county (Hall) to build a purported water supply reservoir. In fact, it would have been an amenity lake for a massive real estate development, paid for by taxpayers, and it would also have harmed the Chattahoochee watershed by withholding water from Lake Lanier, among other impacts.

Former Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle presided over the State Senate for 16 long years, during which he stopped every common sense environmental initiative proposed. Cagle was also the reason I was removed from the Board of Natural Resources 10 years ago – after having been reappointed by then-Gov. Sonny Perdue – when a Senate committee failed to confirm my reappointment.

Will Brian Kemp and Geoff Duncan be any better on the decisions that affect the health and safety of our communities and natural environment? Only time will tell. We are always hopeful.

The Georgia Water Coalition has chosen three priority issues for the 2019 session of the Georgia General Assembly. Representing more than 250,000 Georgians, this coalition has secured a number of major successes, since its establishment sixteen years ago.

Trust Fund Honesty: Under the Georgia Constitution, legislators can adopt laws that establish fees to fund state programs; the Solid and Hazardous Waste Funds were created in the early 1990s to clean up hazardous sites and illegal tire dumps. Since that time, more than $200 million in fees have been diverted to pay for general budget expenses. The remedy is a Constitutional amendment that gives legislators the authority to transparently dedicate fee revenues, while providing them flexibility in the event of an economic downturn. As a member of the Georgia House, our new lieutenant governor co-sponsored the amendment bill last year; however, it did not pass because Casey Cagle did not allow it to come to the Senate floor for a vote. Advocates believe that there’s a real chance for this measure to pass this year.

Coal Ash Pollution: While Georgia Power is closing old, unlined coal ash storage ponds, proven to contaminate surface and groundwater, a new loophole in Georgia law may alter this positive direction. Beginning in July, local governments will charge landfill operators $2.50 (as a “host-fee” for allowing the landfill within their boundaries) for every ton of household garbage collected, but only $1 per ton for coal ash – an incentive for power utilities to dispose their coal ash in municipal landfills. Worse, this loophole means that Georgia will be more attractive as a dumping ground for out-of-state coal ash. Legislators must close this loophole during the 2019 session; they may be helped by Gov. Kemp who has said that he doesn’t want our state to “become a dumping ground for coal ash.”

Stream Buffer Protection: Scientific studies have concluded that natural, vegetated buffers along waterways can serve multiple economic benefits – from water quality and wildlife habitat to flood attenuation. Whatever the width of the buffer, the point at which the measurement is taken is critical. Current state law is not clear on this matter for all types of waterways. Legislators must clarify the language using a more suitable marker, such as the “ordinary high water mark” or “the bank of the stream”. This would help ensure protection from soil erosion and loss of tree shade for the rivers, lakes and creeks that provide our drinking water and much more.

Learn more about these issues at gawater.org. To find your legislators and contact them, visit openstates.org/find_your_legislator.

Sally Bethea

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and current board president of Chattahoochee Parks Conservancy whose mission is to build a community of support for the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. Her Above the Waterline column recently won first place for opinion writing at the Georgia Press Association Awards. 

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