Coastal Marsh Buffers

On Earth Day, April 22, 2014, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) Director Jud Turner issued a directive that changes the rules for determining marsh buffers along the Georgia coast. His directive effectively removed any marsh buffer protection for most of the Georgia coast by revoking a 2004 directive by EPD Director Carol Couch that was much more protective of the marshes. The effect of this new directive can be simply stated: it will permit more development that will encroach on Georgia marshes and result in irreparable damage. The action comes as Sea Island Acquisitions is seeking a permit to build a road through the marsh on Sea Island to access its proposed development of The Spit, which The Georgia Conservancy opposes.

In 1970, the Georgia General Assembly enacted the Coastal Marshland Protection Act (CMPA) to protect our estuarine and marsh ecosystems by regulating the activities and development permitted in or near these sensitive habitats. The law recognizes the monumental ecological and economic importance of the marshes and the need to protect them. Because the Georgia coast has fully one third of all the marshes on the Atlantic seaboard, protecting the marshes has national significance.

To strengthen the CMPA, the General Assembly enacted the Erosion and Sedimentation Control Act (ESCA) in 1978. It established a 25-foot vegetated buffer along all “waters of the state,” including coastal marshes, with buffers to be measured from the point of “wrested vegetation.”

What is wrested vegetation?

The term “wrested vegetation” refers to plant life that is twisted or torn clear by the natural movement of water. The term is more easily applied to mountain streams and rivers where there is fast-moving water. Along the coast, the tidal action does not always create “wrested vegetation.”

In order to clarify the coastal application of the CMPA and the ESCA, Director Couch issued her 2004 directive providing that marsh buffers would be measured from the “jurisdictional line” for marshes, the point where state regulation begins. The jurisdictional line under the Couch directive was established as the point where certain designated marsh plants stop growing, with the marsh buffer being 25 feet landward from that point. Now, EPD Director Turner has thrown out the Couch directive and flatly stated that “where there is no wrested vegetation, there will be no marsh buffer.”

With most of the coastal marshes unprotected by buffers as a result of the action of one appointed official, the new governor and General Assembly must fix the problem by amending the ESCA so that it will clearly protect both salt and freshwater marshes from the effects of development.

The Georgia Conservancy has begun discussing the issue with legislative leaders, and there is strong interest in working toward a solution. We will work with our environmental partners, legislators and EPD to agree on legislation for the 2015 session of the General Assembly that will finally give coastal marshes the protection that they must have.

Read an op-ed from Susan Shipman, former Georgia DNR Coastal Resources Division Director.