The Restoration of Coastal Marsh Buffers

When Sidney Lanier penned his famous poem, “The Marshes of Glynn,” in 1875, he extolled the beauty and wild scenery of Georgia’s salt marsh. Though he feared this incredible landscape would be spoiled, Georgia’s coast has remained largely intact and even flourished at a time when many of the East Coast’s dynamic salt marshes have been lost or critically impaired.

It’s no accident that Georgia’s coast is among the healthiest in the nation. Because of the foresight of our local, state and federal governments, along with the advocacy of concerned citizens and dedicated environmental organizations, our salt marshes continue to be one of the most productive ecosystems on the planet – and they remain a place sought for recreation and relaxation. Their protection has been an economic and ecological success.

Our salt marshes play a key role in sustaining Georgia’s economy. They are nursery areas for commercially important species of fish and shellfish, including shrimp, blue crab, snapper, grouper and other finfish and shellfish. Recreation and tourism are also a key part of Georgia’s coastal economy, valued at more than $2 billion annually.

And they are critical to the state’s biodiversity and wildlife, including several endangered and threatened species that are commonly found in Georgia’s salt marshes.

For 40 years, Georgia’s Erosion and Sedimentation Act (E&S Act) of 1975 has been instrumental in creating and maintaining the coastal environment that we have today. For every bad development, one can point to an endless horizon of protected beach, upland forest and salt marsh. The E&S Act has sheltered our coastline, fostered tourism and incubated our commercial and recreational fisheries.

On April 22, 2014 (Earth Day), the state Attorney General determined that a key element of the E&S Act, which the state Environmental Protection Division (EPD) had understood to require a 25-foot vegetative buffer between our salt marsh and upland development, was not enforceable. As a consequence, the buffer that had long protected Georgia’s salt marshes from erosion and direct pollution no longer existed. Our salt marshes had lost an extremely important protective measure.

For the months following the state Attorney General’s determination, the Georgia Conservancy worked with our conservation partners, coastal legislators and concerned citizens to introduce legislation that would advance our goal of restoring the 25-foot salt marsh buffer and providing EPD with the statute authority to enforce the buffer.

Going in to the 2015 legislative session, the Georgia Conservancy maintained four criteria that we felt were necessary to any marsh buffer legislation. Those four criteria were:

  • That EPD is provided with statutory authority to enforce a 25-foot salt marsh buffer;
  • That the language in any proposed legislation be confined to salt marsh buffers and did not allow for any negative changes to Georgia code related to the control of soil erosion and sedimentation along fresh water bodies;
  • That legislators and stakeholders from coastal Georgia districts are the leading voices in finding salt marsh buffer legislation; and
  • That a bill restoring the 25-foot marsh buffer and providing for its enforcement be introduced, passed and signed during 2015, ending the period where Georgia has no defined or enforceable salt marsh buffer.

In February, during the 2015 legislative session, Senate Bill 101 was introduced. Though not perfect in its original language, Senate Bill 101 was led by coastal legislators, would restore the 25-foot buffer and provide for its enforcement. The bill was introduced by Senator Ben Waston (R-1) of Savannah and sponsored by coastal legislators Senators Lester Jackson (D-2) of Savannah and William Ligon (R-3) of Brunswick, along with Senators Tommie Williams (R-19), Ross Tolleson (R-20) and Bill Coswert (R-46). The Georgia Conservancy would like to thank these Senators for introducing Senate Bill 101.

During the session, two amendments were made to SB 101 that strengthened definitions and clarified enforcement language. These improvements were added to the bill due in large part to the work of our key conservation partners at the Georgia Water Coalition and dedicated members of the Georgia House, including Representatives Debbie Buckner (R-137), Jeff Jones (R-167), John Meadows (R-5) and Ron Stephens (R-164).

To champion the amended bill, which provided EPD with greater enforcement of the buffer, the Georgia Conservancy and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce issued a joint letter of support and provided it to every single member of the Georgia House of Representatives. A coalition that amendment sponsor Rep. Ron Stephens said he had never seen during his 18-year tenure in the House. In late March 2015, with Sine Die just days away, the amended SB 101 passed the House and was approved by the Senate.

Pending its approval by the Governor, the passage of Senate Bill 101 is a bipartisan victory for Georgia’s vast and dynamic salt marsh, and adds to our state's historic protection of our coast. The final bill was the result of deep compromise in which many proposals not in the best interest of protecting the marsh were struck from the language.

In continuing our efforts to establish an enforceable marsh buffer, the Georgia Conservancy and our partners will work with the EPD throughout 2015 as they develop the rules and procedures put forth in Senate Bill 101.

(Photos by Georgia Conservancy member Phuc Dao)