Georgia Department of Natural Resources Removes Protections for Chattahoochee River

The Georgia Department of Natural Reaources, ignoring opposition from business owners, landowners, environmental groups, and concerned citizens, voted this week to eliminate a regulation that has been understood for the past 40 years to require a minimum flow of at least 750 cubic feet per second (cfs) on the Chatthoochee River at Peachtree Creek in Atlanta.

At a public hearing on Tuesday, opponents of the measure expressed concern that reducing flows would make the river unsafe for recreation and for wildlife.  Owners of recreation companies worried that the river will become too shallow for people to safely float or paddle on the river.  A number of commentors explained that lower flows will result in less dilution of pollution, potentially creating a human health hazard in the river.

Environmental groups also worried about the effects of lower streamflows on wildlife.  The Chattahoochee is the southern most trout stream in the US and the only one in an urban area.  Lower flows could result in higher water temperatures that would make the river too warm to support trout.

I spoke at the hearing on behalf of the Georgia Chapter of the Sierra Club.  In my comments, I pointed to a study produced by the US Geological Survey that found that changing streamflows affects some 40% of fish communities present in altered streams, which the study explains is an indicator of the decreased health of the stream.

Many commentors present at the hearing on Tuesday believe the DNR’s motivation for removing the 750 cfs regulation is to hold on to more water and to gain an advantage in Georgia’s ongoing dispute with Alabama and Florida over water, the so-called Tri-State Water War.

I noted in my comment that conservation is a much more sound strategy for holding on to more water that doesn’t threaten our natural resources.  Indeed, Georgia’s daily water usage dropped 30% between 1980 and 2010 while that state’s population grew by 77% during the same period.  Much of the drop was thanks to the retirement of out-dated coal-fired power plants that require tremendous amounts of water for cooling purposes.  Increased efficiency gained from low-flow fixtures and tiered pricing systems also contributed to the decrease.

But the DNR Board of Directors was unmoved.  During a discussion after the public comments wrapped up, board members seemed to not even consider any of the concerns raised by the commentors.  None mentioned efficiency, and none expressed concern for the potential impact on businesses.  Instead, at least one board member latched on to the idea of holding on to as much water as possible, and they all accepted Environmental Protection Division Director Judd Turner’s assurances that removing the 750 cfs regulation would have no effect on streamflows.

All of those who commented on the 750 cfs regulation at Tuesday’s hearing were opposed to removing it.

The board voted unanimously to remove the regulation.

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