Georgia Water Coalition touts agenda

ATLANTA - Environmental advocates Tuesday attacked pending legislation they said would harm water quality in several regions of the state and offered some alternatives.

On the Georgia Water Coalition's hit list is a package of bills that would reduce stream buffer requirements and legislation that would virtually abolish rental fees on state-owned marshes. The alliance of 130 organizations also criticized state budget writers for inadequately funding water-quality monitoring.

"The message here is no rollback on water quality,'' said Glenn Dowling, vice president of the Georgia Wildlife Federation, during a rally outside the Capitol. "Careful management of our water is essential.''

The coalition opposes five bills introduced by Sen. Chip Pearson, R-Dawsonville. The key measure in the package would reduce the state's minimum stream-buffer requirement to 25 feet for most waterways other than trout streams, down from the 75-foot buffers now mandated in metro Atlanta and 150-foot buffers that apply to streams that supply drinking water.

The legislation stems from a study committee Pearson chaired last year that heard a deluge of complaints from landowners - particularly in hilly north Georgia - who are prohibited from building on the best parts of their properties.

"In Lumpkin County, the best land these folks have is land where the streams go through,'' Pearson said.

Sen. Seth Harp, R-Midland, told water coalition members during Tuesday's rally that he would introduce a bill today that would provide tax breaks to property owners for the land they can't develop because it's inside a stream buffer.

"Protecting buffers helps streams,'' he said. "Protecting property makes landowners want to participate, to be a part of this.''

Pearson said one of his bills takes a similar approach by exempting undeveloped land inside buffers from state property taxes.

Rep. Jeff Brown, R-LaGrange, said he also is pushing environmentally friendly legislation this year in the form of an "encouraging resolution.''

It calls on the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District to require that homes and commercial structures built before 1993 be retrofitted with low-flow plumbing fixtures whenever they are sold.

Speakers at the rally also protested a bill pending in the House that would let people lease state-owned coastal marshland for docks or marinas for $1 per acre per year, such a small amount that critics say it amounts to an illegal gratuity. Current law requires that renters pay fair market value.

"Why would the state want to undersell its resource? Who does business that way?'' said Gordon Rogers, head of Satilla Riverkeeper, a coastal environmental group.

"This wholesale giveaway is unconstitutional, not to mention being bad policy.''

Rally speakers also called on the Legislature to beef up funding for the erosion and sedimentation inspection program the General Assembly created several years ago. Gov. Sonny Perdue's 2007 budget request would provide $1 million less than the fees the program collected from builders in fiscal year 2004.