Georgia River Protections May Change

The way Georgia regulates runoff, one of the main pollutants in the state’s waterways, may soon change. A state house committee has passed a bill that changes the way the Georgia Soil and Water Conservation Commission operates.

The commission was formed during the Dust Bowl to control erosion from farms. Now it monitors runoff from construction sites, too. It has 40 districts around the state, and its district supervisors are all volunteers. Now Rep. David Knight, R-Griffin, wants to take away some of the Soil and Water Commission’s authority.

The first change, also supported by Gov. Nathan Deal, ends the agency’s independence. It would be “administratively attached” to the Department of Agriculture. In a hearing Monday afternoon, Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said he’s OK with it, as long as his agency gets more money if it takes on more responsibilities.

“Our big challenge is on the finance side of this,” Black said. “There are lots of transactions. There are lots of staff requirements, even for a small agency.”

The next change is about the make-up of the commission itself. In Georgia, there are 370 Soil and Water volunteer district supervisors. They keep an eye on erosion and runoff, and work with local authorities to keep rivers clean. As it stands now, five of those volunteers are chosen by the governor to oversee the commission.

Knight’s bill would no longer require the commissioners to be chosen from the pool of district supervisors. The governor could appoint whoever he wants to the commission, as long as they come from all over the state.

That puts the commission’s mission in jeopardy, according to Jason Ulseth, the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and a former employee of the Soil and Water Commission.

“It’s essential that the five member commission board be comprised of at least three district supervisors, if not all five,” Ulseth said at Monday’s hearing.

The last big change is about a document called the Green Book that regulates runoff from construction sites. The Soil and Water Commission updates it, but encountered controversy when it introduced its latest edition. Knight said he wants to keep that from happening again.

“Georgia Soil and Water is still the originator, still in charge of the Green Book,” he said. But approval would be handed off to a different body, a council composed of state appointees and representatives from GDOT, the Environmental Protection Division and the State Road and Tollway Authority.

Environmentalists worry that a council composed of transportation and construction groups would be too lenient on runoff control.

The bill passed the House Agriculture & Consumer Affairs committee on Monday. It now goes to the full House for a vote.