Coastal Surface Water Quality &
Quality Issues Related to Watershed Land Uses

(1.) Historically, land-based activities within coastal watersheds have altered drainage patterns and volumes, which is believed to have significantly affected the concentration and distribution of waterborne chemical pollutants, salinity, and nutrients. In addition to point and non-point source pollution, deposits of air contaminants (nitrogen, sulfur dioxide, and mercury) from coal-burning power plants and other sources add to these problems. Some 60% of Georgia's land area drains into the five coastal river systems.

(2.) Filling and draining of wetlands for forestry and land-development in the region have reduced the slow-release function of fresh water wetlands - which causes greater extremes (highs and lows) in flow volumes. Further, a recent analysis based on hydrological modeling of the lower Altamaha River estimates that groundwater outflow of nearly 2 million gallons a day of freshwater has been lost due to reduced artesian pressure in underlying aquifers, caused by excessive withdrawal in the area.

(3.) Local governments, which retain exclusive authority to make decisions about the location, type, sequence, and proximity (density) of land development, have little capability to predict or evaluate the consequences of development in terms of non-point source pollution or drainage flow volume and distribution. Local development regulatory staff is often severely limited in capacity and technical qualifications. Moreover, their decisions are made without the benefit of having the means for systemic assessment throughout an entire watershed, nor is there adequate understanding of the need for it.

(4.)State environmental protection is limited to permit review of activities affecting 'state waters' on a case-by-case basis, including no reliable or consistent procedure for assessing the cumulative, interactive, and long-term effects of individual permits. Only about 10% of state waters are sampled, and 60% of these fail to meet federal 'fishable and swimmable' standards.

(5.) Water quality monitoring is deficient, both in geographic dispersion and pollutant screening. The EPA National Watershed Assessment reports that data for 3 of 7 key water-quality indicators are "insufficient" for coastal Georgia rivers; missing data includes information about toxins known to be harmful to humans and wildlife. At the same time, federal funding for surface water testing is being cut.

(6.) Commercial fishing, a major source of employment in the region, is confronting a gradual but significant reduction in the productivity of coastal waters. Harvest of blue crab and brown shrimp are in severe decline, indicated by the most recent 10-year average being at least 50% below the average annual yield for the previous 30 years. Recent failure of the Georgia shrimp harvest is blamed on drought, but it is certainly worsened by various human activities that reduce fresh-water flow and quality.

(7.) With adequate research, more information about the current conditions of coastal waters in terms of compromised water quality and altered flow (and their causes) can help improve policies and procedures needed to achieve greater accountability and capability for controlling these problems. An in-depth study is needed to determine the content and sequencing of related research and to estimate the time, funding requirements, and alternative funding sources available to complete it.

(8.) The currency, comprehensiveness, and accuracy of data are essential to support accountable, consistent, proactive decisions to advance the effectiveness of both local and state government actions. This includes revisions in the practices of all levels of government and in the means for coordinating their activities to achieve common objectives for managing natural resources in the public interest. (Refer to the Performance Audit for the Erosion and Sedimentation Control Program, September 2001.)

(9.) These benefits will enhance the protection of water resources for critical needs in relation to public health and water supply, recreational activities, wildlife habitat, and regionally important resource-based economic activities, including commercial fishing and tourism. Nature-based business is estimated to support one out of every five jobs in the coastal Georgia region, worth at least $1 billion annually.

(10.) Without a substantial effort to improve management of water resources, further decline in coastal fisheries can be expected, with related risks to public health caused by increased potential for: nutrient-loading; eutrophication, low dissolved oxygen; rising concentration of contaminants in water, sediments, and fish/shellfish; increased salinity; and episodic proliferation of algae and opportunistic parasites, some of which have the ability to produce deadly neurotoxins.
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