Metro stream protections under review

LAWRENCEVILLE - A metro Atlanta water district could tweak its stream buffer requirements, giving counties and cities more leeway in how they comply with the regional mandates.

That and other potential changes to water guidelines adopted two years ago for a 16-county area, including Gwinnett County, does not sit well with at least one environmental group.

Sally Bethea, executive director of Upper Chattahoochee River Keeper, said the changes would severely weaken the water plans crafted to ensure the region has enough water to grow through 2030.

"A lot of people have spent four years and $8.5 million in taxpayers' dollars to develop long-term water plans for metro Atlanta so several million more people can move here without harming our critical waterways," Bethea said.

"Our view is that with the removal of some of the watershed protections, what we are going to end up with is simply a plan that serves as an engine for growth with insufficient water safeguards."

The potential change to the stream-buffer requirement has drawn the most attention.

Local governments within the Metro North Georgia Water Planning District are required to create rules discouraging development within 75 feet of a stream.

While landowners across the rest of Georgia only have to leave 25-foot buffers along streams, those within the district are supposed to leave a 50-foot buffer of undisturbed vegetation, followed by a 25-foot band where concrete and buildings are prohibited but lawns and landscaping are allowed.

The buffers help cleanse pollution-laden stormwater as it runs into waterways, and they help slow the runoff, ensuring it does not rip apart streambanks and cause downstream flooding.

Counties can grant buffer variances to landowners, allowing them to work inside the first 50 feet of the 75-foot buffer, and Gwinnett has adopted such a process.

Property owners who get a variance in Gwinnett must contribute money to a county fund, which will be used to repair streams that have already been damaged by development.

The change being mulled over by water district officials would let counties and cities devise their own stream buffer requirement, as long as it can be scientifically documented that it is as effective as the district's 75-foot requirement.

Rick Brownlow, a planner with the water district, said local governments already have the ability to create their own buffer requirements, and the proposed change would simply clarify that.

It would also force counties to scientifically prove their buffer systems are equal to the district's - something that is not required now, Brownlow said.

"It doesn't say you can do anything you want," Brownlow said. "You must illustrate how what you are doing is still as scientifically effective as what the district requires."

If the regional buffer requirement is tweaked, Gwinnett will have to study the new language before deciding whether to keep its current buffer system, a county official said.

"It's our goal to be consistent with what the metro district requires, so if there is a change in its plans I think we would look very hard at amending our ordinance to remain consistent with the metro district plan," said county Public Utilities Director Frank Stephens.

The water plans were created by the water district to guide water use through 2030, when projections show the region's population growth will nearly max out its water supply.

The change in the district's stream buffer mandate was requested by Hall County, Brownlow and Bethea said.